For Greater Glory, a romanticized movie about Mexico’s Cristero War in the 1920s, will appeal to Catholics. And to lovers of freedom to worship. And to Americans who cherish the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, for it portrays precisely the sort of situation our Founding Fathers feared.
For all these reasons For Greater Glory is receiving very mixed reviews. It is being panned by big newspaper critics, praised by most viewers, and vilified by a few who hate the Church and what she believes.
The narrative is necessarily multifaceted because a history lesson about the Catholic fight for freedom in Mexico during the late 1920’s is needed. This is a story about which most Americans, including most American Catholics, are totally ignorant. The film quickly sketches the political and social backdrop and then proceeds to develop the plot around three central figures, all historical.
The first is a Mason and atheist, Enrique Gorostieta Velarde, a one-time general in the Mexican Army who was paid handsomely to turn disparate groups of rebels into a formidable, never-defeated fighting force. The second is a young boy, José Luis Sánchez del Río, later beatified by Pope Benedict XVI, who leaves home to serve with the rebels. And the third is Plutarco Elias Calles, the president of Mexico who started the war.
The movie is, by turns, gripping, inspiring, and heart-rending. For there is a terrific story to be told. After years of increased deprivations of freedoms (catalogued by Pope Pius XI in his 1926 encyclical “On the Persecution of the Church in Mexico”) and escalated by the Calles government into all-out repression, Mexican Catholics, especially in the state of Jalisco, turned to arms. They were called the “Cristeros,” which, loosely translated, means “soldiers of Christ,” and they entered battles with the cry “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” (Long live Christ the King).
The action starts early with the killing of an elderly priest. The record shows that this was by no means an isolated case. By the end of the war more than 90 percent of the priests of Mexico had been expelled or shot. Graham Greene, whose novel The Power and the Glory, is set in this era, called it “the fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth.” (Of course, Greene was writing before the even bloodier Spanish Civil War. There are many parallels, though the most significant difference is that in Spain much if not most of the Army fought on the side of freedom for the Church.)
Most of the Cristeros were good men and women, some of them saints, but others were gritty and sinful. The life of Father Reyes Vega, a priest-general, was very distant from the priestly ideal, though in the movie his character combines two priest-generals, Father Vega and Father Aristeo Pedroza. But their failings cannot tarnish the heroism of many, especially the Cristero martyrs. However this is a movie, not a history book.
With military leaders like these, relations between the Cristeros and the Catholic hierarchy must have been strained at best. In the movie there are hints of this, but no clear delineation. And although the Cristeros were the means by which the Church regained some limited freedom, in the end they fared badly. The war ended with the help of American pressure (motivated more by access to oil and gas than by the ideal of religious freedom). The terms included their pardon, but most of the leaders who had not gone into exile and many of Cristero soldiers were murdered by government forces after the truce. This is not portrayed in the movie.
The most memorable character is undoubtedly Victoriano Ramírez López (Oscar Isaacs) whose shoot-out with federal troops is worthy of Clint Eastwood at his Dirty Harry best. Enrique Gorostieta is played with restrained, prudent, personal force by Andy Garcia. His participation brought more Hollywood actors into the movie, including Eva Longoria who plays his devout Catholic wife Tulita. Panamanian actor Ruben Blades is excellent as the morose President Calles. Father Christopher, a kindly and frail elderly priest who is shot, is played by 79-year-old Peter O’Toole in ways quite reminiscent of his 1969 role in Goodbye Mr. Chips.
Mauricio Kuri, a young Mexican actor plays (now Blessed) Jose del Rio in a rather pious way. His character may be true to life — he was dubbed Tarcisius by his fellow soldiers. As he was only 13, he served as a standard bearer and carried an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe into the field. He was also brave – he gave his horse to his general, Father Pedroza, during a battle. This leads to his capture and torture (which probably gives the movie its R-rating) and death. There is a big question which the film leaves unexplored: how do ordinary people become so full of hatred that they resort to violence against other ordinary people?
For Greater Glory is a movie definitely worth seeing. You will learn. You will cry. You will be inspired.
The film has a relevance which extends beyond Mexico. North of the Rio Grande, believers may eventually face persecution. Two years ago, the Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, made a sombre prediction: “I expect to die in bed; my successor will die in prison; and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” More recently he commented on the Obama Administration’s moves against the Church: “The long-term effect is that the Catholic Church will be stripped of the institutions that are her instruments for public service. We will lose hospitals, we will lose universities. That’s not the country I was born in… Something monumental is happening here.”
These are words worth reflecting on as you watch For Greater Glory.