Epic drama is overdone — but helpful as history

For Greater Glory
Rated R for war violence and some disturbing images


Few movies these days cover historical events that are unknown even to some history buffs. But such is the case with For Greater Glory, a newly released, 143-minute epic starring Andy Garcia.

The Cristero War (1926-29) was an armed uprising against the Mexican government in response to persecution of Roman Catholics under President Plutarco Calles. Though an estimated 90,000 people died in the conflict, it was nearly written out of the country’s national history until Calles’ Institutional Revolutionary Party lost its majority rule in the 1990s.

 

In For Greater Glory, Andy Garcia stars as the leader of a Catholic rebellion against oppression from the Mexican government in the late 1920s. PHOTO COURTESY NEWLAND FILMS

In 1913 the church’s support of counterrevolutionary President Victoriano Huerta had made it unpopular with leaders of the Mexican Revolution. As a result the new constitution drafted in 1917 included restrictions against clergy, and soon after Calles took office in 1924, he intensified the crackdown. Priests were barred from holding public office or wearing clerical garb, and could be sent to prison for criticizing the government. Foreign priests were expelled from Mexico, church property was seized and convents, monasteries and religious schools were closed.

At first Catholic groups organized peaceful resistance through economic boycotts. Then in August 1926, parishioners in Guadalajara barricaded themselves inside a church and engaged in a shootout with federal troops. A grass-roots rebellion was soon launched, led by former general Enrique Gorostieta; the violence raged for three years, ending only when a truce was brokered by the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

In the film Gorostieta, played by Mr. Garcia, starts out as a man of little faith, drawn into the war only because the Cristeros (“Soldiers of Christ”) promise a high salary and security for his family. In time, though, he’s inspired by their passion and fully devotes himself to the fight for religious freedom.

The script makes room for additional protagonists, many of them based on real figures. The most notable of these: José Luis Sánchez del Rio (Mauricio Kuri), a 14-year-old boy who joins the cause against his family’s wishes after witnessing the execution of a beloved local priest. José, too, exemplifies selfless courage in scenes that are powerful and haunting, if difficult to watch. (Parents, especially, should heed the R rating.)

Not that For Greater Glory is even close to perfect. Director Dean Wright—who served as an effects supervisor on the Narnia and Lord of the Rings series—juggles so many subplots that at times it’s needlessly confusing. Some of the acting goes over the top, as does composer James Horner’s background music; whenever Rubén Blades appears as President Calles, overemphatic scoring is there to underline each insidious word of dialogue.

But to some viewers, those flaws will be trumped by the chance to encounter a neglected and significant chapter in 20th-century history. For that, the movie earns an endorsement, with reservations.

 

bfentum@umr.org

 

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