For Greater Glory Offers Lessons in History, Catechesis

Film About Mexico's Fight for Religious Freedom Opens in June in US

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By Edward Pentin 

ROME, MARCH 22, 2012 (Zenit.org).- It’s one of Mexico’s most expensive movies ever made, with a cast of Hollywood greats. Yet unlike many relatively big budget films about the Church, this one unusually approaches the Catholic faith with seriousness, respect and sensitivity.

Starring Andy Garcia and Peter O’Toole, “For Greater Glory” is a compelling war film based on the true story of the Cristero War -- a conflict caused by the brutal government crackdown on the Mexican Catholic Church in the 1920s. 

Released at a time when religious freedom, especially for Catholics, is being attacked in the United States and elsewhere, the picture is also particularly timely. 

Beautifully shot across the plains of northern and central Mexico and accompanied by a stirring soundtrack by Hollywood composer James Horner, the movie takes the audience through the harrowing violence and suppression of the Church in Mexico during that time. A largely unknown conflict -- even to Mexicans -- the movie also doubles as a valuable educational tool on this dark chapter in the nation’s history.

Garcia headlines the picture as General Enrique Gorostieta Velarde, a retired soldier who, despite being something of an agnostic, values religious freedom and agrees to help the Cristeros -- a rebel army fighting against the state. He becomes the resistance’s most inspiring and self-sacrificing leader as he witnesses the religious persecution of his countrymen.

Thanks to his charismatic leadership, Gorostieta transforms the disorderly rebels, some of whom are priests, into a heroic force that confronts a far mightier and ruthless government. But the general also learns lessons from the army’s youth and renegades and, above all, a brave boy called José whose courage is an inspiration to the general when he and his men have all but given up hope. 

Almost all the characters are based on real persons and, although some artistic license is used, the storyline strives to be faithful to actual events. Without issuing any spoilers, one can say that General Gorostieta did indeed lead the rebel army, a few priests did take up arms, and a number of characters portrayed in the film performed acts of heroism that would later be recognized by the Church.

The movie contains some outstanding performances; Garcia plays Gorostieta with such depth and meaning that after watching the film some felt he had given possibly his best-ever performance, worthy perhaps of an Oscar. Another remarkable performance is that of Mauricio Kuri, a 14-year-old Mexican actor, who plays a character based on the life of José Luis Sánchez del Rio.

Other actors also powerfully recall the heroism of their historical characters. British Academy Award winner Peter O’Toole, perhaps best known for his 1962 portrayal of Lawrence of Arabia, plays Father Christopher. An elderly priest, possibly loosely based on the life of Father Luis Bátiz Sainz, O’Toole plays him with great depth and compassion. 

Other parts include that of Tulita, General Gorostieta’s wife, played by American TV star Eva Longoria, and the Mexican lawyer Anacleto Gonzalez Flores, performed by the pro-life Mexican actor, Eduardo Verástegui. The movie’s producer, Pablo Jose Barroso, told ZENIT after the film’s Rome premiere Tuesday that it wasn’t very hard to get so many leading names to star in the film. “They loved the story and were very moved by it,” he said simply.

One weakness of the film, however, is that it lacks adequate character and plot formation at the beginning. It’s not clear why the government becomes so anti-clerical and antagonistic toward the Church. Mexico’s then-President, Plutarco Elías Calles, appears in the film to arbitrarily loathe the Church simply because he’s an atheist, but little other explanation is given. 

The omission possibly owes itself to the complex and intricate politics that preceded the Cristero War. In short, the 1910 Mexican Revolution led to an increase in Marxist anticlericalism, made worse by the fact that the Church hierarchy later lent its support to a counterrevolutionary called Victoriano Huerta.

A series of political overthrows followed, culminating in a revolutionary called Álvaro Obregón becoming president in late 1920. Obregón then selectively applied the anticlerical laws in the new Constitution, which worsened when Calles became president in 1924. Calles’ rule led to the desecration of religious objects, persecution of the clergy, anticlerical legislation and, eventually, the seizure of Church property, the expulsion of all foreign priests, and the closure of monasteries, convents and religious schools.

In response, Catholic organizations began to intensify their resistance, setting up the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty in 1924. Soon after, the failure of efforts by Mexican bishops to have the offending articles of the Constitution removed, and following a series of rebel incursions, the Cristero War was declared on 1 January 1927. The Cristeros, whose battle cry was “¡Viva Cristo Rey! ¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe! (Long live Christ the King! Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe!)”, won a number of victories against the “Federales” but also suffered many losses. 

By June 1929, a peace agreement was eventually brokered through the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Whitney Morrow, who wanted peace partly to help resolve an American oil crisis. By the time the peace deal was signed, the war was said to have claimed some 90,000 lives

Remarkably, as the revolutionary party went on to rule Mexico for the next 70 years, details of the conflict were largely hidden from many Mexicans. “We never knew about it, it’s not in the official curriculum of the schools,” said Juan A. Mercado, a native of Mexico City and associate professor of modern philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. “We learned about it through family, or at university you’d hear a bit about it. It was a taboo, the state didn’t want it known and yet it was a huge movement in the country.” 

The movie also contains occasional moments of humor and, largely through exchanges between General Gorostieta and various other characters, the movie acts as a kind of catechesis by explaining the importance and meaning of the Christian faith. For Barroso, who is in real estate rather than film production, this was a significant motive for making the picture, but also a challenge. 

“It’s necessary to show that everyone is searching for faith, but they don’t know where or how to find it, then they read about this story,” he told me. “I thought that it’s amazing that even Mexicans don’t know about it, and that pushed me into doing this.” But he stressed that not being a movie producer by profession made the project “difficult” for him. 

Rome-based independent film maker Manuel de Teffe, who helped with some of the original screenplay and research, called “For Greater Glory” an “extremely important movie” because of the way it “fills historical gaps.” He also appreciated the “raw reality” of the picture.

The film is estimated to have cost $20 million, far more than the usual $2.5 million budgets for Mexican films but far less than a major Hollywood blockbuster, which can run anywhere between $250 million to $500 million. Due to the relatively high costs, the film had to win distribution rights in the U.S. 

Filming also came with another risk: one of the main locations was the state of Durango, a center for Mexico’s drug-related violence. 

“For Greater Glory” ("Cristiada" in Spanish) opens in Mexican theatres on April 20 and in American cinemas on June 1. The hope is to bring it to European audiences as well. 

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On the Net:

For Greater Glory: www.forgreaterglory.com

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Edward Pentin is a freelance journalist in Rome and can be reached at epentin@zenit.org