Saturday, September 29, 2012

So Far From God, So Close to the United States



FOR GREATER GLORY

It's a curious thing about Mexico.  The world sees it as a devoutly Catholic country (so much so that Protestant missionaries are chased away if they dare say anything against La Virgen de Guadalupe). However, the federal government has been extremely hostile to the Church, so much so that the Constitution forbids open-air Masses (which I figure is conveniently ignored whenever the Pope wanders in, though I do wonder if certain people in the U.S. wouldn't mind a country that enshrines--no pun intended--in their Constitution the right to arrest people for praying in public.  Just a thought).  So much pride is taken by the government, in particular the President of the Republic, in their secularism that when then-President Vicente Fox and First Lady Marta Sahagun kissed Pope John Paul II's ring as a sign of devotion, it made headlines across the nation.

The story of the Cristeros, an army of Mexicans who fought against the government for their right to practice Catholicism freely and openly, is a story that is little-known, even within Mexico.  For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada, is the first feature to tell this story about a literal war for religious freedom.  It stumbles at times, but on the whole it does what it sets out to do: be inspiring, sweeping, and move the viewer emotionally. 

We begin with a brief explanation of Mexico in 1926. President Plutarco Calles (Ruben Blades) has pushed for legislation placing tighter restrictions on the Catholic Church.  Among them: forbidding priests to wear clerical robes in public, deporting non-native born priests (so much for all that talk of immigration reform) and a five-year prison sentence for priests who criticize the government.  This doesn't sit well with the Church General, which strikes back by basically closing down shop and/or ignoring these laws.

Said laws will be enforced, even (and especially) at the tip of a bayonet.  Calles cracks down hard on the Church, going so far as to storm churches (sometimes on horseback) and shoot parishioners as they stand.  Calles' ire is particularly reserved for parish priest, whom he orders shot on sight (again, forgetting that whole 'sactuary' deal).   Among those killed is kindly Father Christopher (Peter O'Toole), who had come to Mexico at age seven and was thought of well in his community.  However, because he was foreign-born and a Catholic priest, he had to go.

Father Christopher's killing inspires the altar boy Jose (Mauricio Kuri), who had grown close to our deceased priest, to join the Cristeros, a ragtag group of revolutionaries who for various reasons oppose Calles' actions. Some, like Father Vega (Santiago Cabrera) are zealous in their pursuit of defending The Faith.  Others, like Victoriano Ramirez "El Catorce" (Oscar Isaac), who earned the nickname "The Fourteen" after having killed fourteen soldiers who had come onto his land, appear just spoiling for a fight.  The opposition, knowing it needs organization and someone with military skills, asks retired general Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia) to lead the Cristeros.  Even though Gorostieta is an agnostic, Calles' push for total statism and forced secularism offends him, and he agrees to lead them.

For Greater Glory then chronicles the struggle between Calles and the Cristeros, and eventually the Americans, fearing for their oil concessions, begin to act as intermediaries.  A peace accord between the Church and a bitter Calles is eventually reached in 1929, but not before Jose is captured, tortured, and killed for refusing to denounce Christ and hail The State, and not before others such as lay Catholic supporter Anacieto Gonzalez Flores (Eduardo Verastegui) and Gorostieta himself are also killed.  We learn that Flores and Jose, along with 11 other Cristeros, are beatified in 2005, putting them one step away from being declared official Saints of the Catholic Church.

As I watched For Greater Glory, I could not help think that this was a tragedy that did not need to be.  This was clearly an unnecessary war brought on by Calles' stubborn, dare I say fascist, determination to stamp out Catholicism or any faith out of Mexicans and remake them into worshippers of The State.  However, I think For Greater Glory went the easy route by making Calles the heavy (and I can see the temptation: with a name that roughly translates to 'Plutarch Streets', one can see that the name lends itself to villainy).  I do however, would have like the film to have put things in greater context.

The Mexican Revolution was still a fresh memory during the events of For Greater Glory.  In THAT conflict, the Church was seen as being on the side of longtime dictator Porfidio Diaz.  The enmity between the Church General and the thoroughly secular government had not been wholly resolved or healed, with the end result of the hierarchies on both sides still being suspicious of each other.  One can only guess whether the bad blood extended on the local level, but the struggle between Church and State had not been resolved by 1926.  Calles' actions, while a wild overreaction to his goals of a secular all-powerful State, might have been explained not as the acts of a thorough fascist but as one that feared Church domination of the population.  It doesn't justify killing people for not bowing down to the state, but it does go a long way to explain his borderline paranoia about Catholicism.

One of my beefs with For Greater Glory is its length: at close to two-and-a-half hours it is far too sprawling to focus on the stories it encompasses.  Such characters as Anacieto Gonzalez Flores pop in quickly only to be forgotten until their literal martyrdom.  It's a disservice to both the character and to Verastegui, who did a good job in the small role of the devout but violent-averse layman. 

Again and again with the exception of Jose, we really don't know much of what motivates the characters.  We see this with Cabrera's Father Vega: how was he able to reconcile being a man of faith but one who also leads men to kill others?  Same with Isaac's Catorce: did he just want to go killing for the fun of it or was there at least a modicum of faith that stirred him to action? 

Garcia is one of our best and sadly underused actors, and he did a strong job with the limits Michael Love's screenplay gave him.  He commands the screen as the general more interested in matters of war than of faith but who eventually grows to care for Jose and see him as a surrogate son.  Love's screenplay did not give either Garcia or Kuri much in terms of interactions to show how they grew to care for each other, but it's a credit to both that they managed to show the evolving relationship despite the script's limitation.

I would put the stiff direction of Dean Wright at where For Greater Glory stumbles.  It was highly focused on being sweeping (with James Horner's overwrought score pushing the emotional buttons badly), a film that made almost everyone behave as if every moment is "An Important Event" rather than trust our characters to be people with conflicting emotions, let alone human.  This style of acting, where actors sometimes almost literally 'strike a pose' and give their 'important words' can be a bit grating over time (and again, the music only serves to show how "grand" at times the people behave).  I would have suggested to Wright that he tone down the nobility of the Cristeros or the almost imperial behavior of the President and allowed the characters to live and breathe.

Still, on the whole those flaws, while difficult to overcome, don't hold down For Greater Glory enough to make it a bad film.  It is an interesting story that should be more well-known, it has some good performances (and we see that actors like Garcia, Isaac, and Cabrera could do more with stronger scripts and directors and who should be working more), and I can't fault a film for aiming to be inspirational if its goal was precisely to be inspirational. 

I found it a bit too long and at times a bit sprawling (and I think those two things go hand in hand), but on the whole For Greater Glory is the best film made about the Cristeros (which, sadly, isn't a big catalogue).             


 If Plutarco Calles had seen this, he would have probably shot them both right then and there.

DECISION: C+

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