Thoughts on a Movie I Didn’t See

It has been a month since For Greater Glory opened in theaters in the United States.  The film is a dramatic telling of some of the events of the Cristero war, a short but bloody civil war in Mexico sparked by anti-Catholic oppression by the government of Plutarcho Calles.  Given its overtly religious storyline and the connections being drawn between the events in Mexico in the 1920’s and today, I figured that it was a worthy topic for a blog post.  However, I have a slight problem:  I haven’t seen the movie.   This happened for lots of reasons, but two stand out:  1)  I don’t go to a lot of movies; 2)  I tend to avoid movies that are controversial or hyped.  (Sometimes I get carried away:  though Romero came out over 20 years ago, I still haven’t seen it, despite my admiration for the man.)

(Image from www.gocomics.com, June 30, 2012)

Nevertheless, I want to write a bit about the movie because the events it depicts touched my own family in complicated ways.  My father and his family lived through the war:  my father, born in 1910, was a teenager at the time.  Moreover, according to sketchy family oral history, my grandfather was both a government tax collector and a member of the Knights of Columbus during this period.  As a young child I was introduced to a friend of the family. a cloistered nun named Sister Infant Jesus.  The sister was Mexican but lived in the US.  I was told that when a novice she had been smuggled out of Mexico in a box car.   And growing up I was aware of the vestiges of anti-clericalism that persisted in Mexico.  (Paradoxically, this made Mexico a popular vacation destination of the priests who ran the high school my older brothers attended.  They liked being able to go on vacation in mufti, since priests were forbidden to wear clerical garb in public.)  Nevertheless, my father remained a good Catholic (well, reasonably good) and a somewhat chauvinist supporter of the PRI:  the political party which was a direct descendent of the revolutionary government of Calles.

The film had a limited release and while it did reasonably well at the box office (just edging into the top 10 the week it opened) it was a critical failure.  The summary site Rotten Tomatoes gives it a dismal 16% rating among mainstream (secular) movie critics.  (By comparison, Adam Sandler’s dreadful film Click received a 33% rating.)  The critics panned it for being sincere but heavy handed and cliche ridden.  Watching the trailer I suspect there is some basis for these critiques: as my wife put it, at the end of two minutes we were drowning in earnestness.  And the historical timeline presented on the film’s website suggested a very one-sided reading of a complex series of events.  (My grandfather, KofC member and government tax collector, shows that things were not black and white at the time.)

The film has received critical acclaim from Catholics, particularly conservative Catholics.  Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, contrary to secular movie critics, praised its cinematic quality.  He wrote in his weekly column:

For Greater Glory” succeeds where so many similar films have failed. Led by Academy Award nominees Andy Garcia and Catalina Sandino Moreno, along with Oscar Isaac, Eva Longoria, Ruben Blades, Eduardo Verastegui and others, the cast is superb. And the writing gives them the kind of robust material they need to work with: strong dialogue, fully developed characters, vivid moral conflicts in a time of revolutionary violence and a compelling story that never lags, thanks to the skilled directing of Dean Wright.

In the end all tastes are tastes, and since I have not seen the film I cannot gainsay him.  Indeed, I remember in the 80’s passionately defending the anti-communist thriller Red Dawn which was equally panned by most mainstream critics.  (I still defend the film, but that is another story.)

More problematic for me have been the endorsements that draw parallels between Mexico in the 1920’s and the United States today.  This began with those connected with the film.  Eduardo Verastegui, one of the actors, told CNS News in an interview that

I don’t see any difference between Plutarco Elias Calles and President Obama or Henry VIII.

The Knights of Columbus have been very outspoken in this regard.  Major financial backers of the film, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said of the film in the May 2012 issue of Columbia magazine:

Today in the United States, it is impossible to recall these events without thinking of current threats to religious liberty, including the Obama administration’s insistence that contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs be included in the health insurance programs of Catholic organizations.  The federal mandate is backed by the threat of millions of dollars in fines if Catholic organizations refuse to comply as a matter of conscience.

The whole issue of Columbia magazine, whose cover shows and armed Cristero in silhouette,  is devoted to the movie and to “real history” of the Cristero war.  (In fairness to Carl Anderson, his column in the National Review about the movie was much more nuanced.)   A sharp critique of the Knights of Columbus  comes from Steve Schneck of the Catholic Alliance for the Common Good.  He writes:

Columbia’s implication is that things are so dire for American Catholics that even extreme rhetoric is not enough. Given the illustrated cover and Anderson’s connecting-the-dots, the implication is what? That it’s time for armed resistance?

A number of other endorsements which draw similar connections between past and present can be found here.  George Weigel, in his usual one-sided fashion, praises the movie and draws out the parallels between then and now in detail.    He concludes his review with a warning:

It is even more important, though, that those who haven’t yet seen the threat, or who deny that it exists, ponder this powerful depiction of the nearby and not-so-distant past, for the sake of the present and future.  

(For a caustic rejoinder see Michael Sean Winter’s blog.)

So, in the end, what can I say about a movie I have not seen?  First, nothing I have seen really makes me want to see it.  And like Romero before it, I am dubious of the ways in which the story has been co-opted for political purposes.  (An admittedly extreme example can be found here.) Second, I am concerned that the complex history which produced the civil war  is being whitewashed into a simplistic good guys versus bad guys narrative.  (The Cristeros, of course, being the good guys.)  Given my own family history, as well as a brief review of the scholarship of the period, I think that this approach is untenable.   The virulent anti-Catholicism of Calles and the 1917 Constitution was and is reprehensible.  But it did not emerge in a vacuum.  The Church, particularly the hierarchy, was closely associated with the aristocracy and the land owners, and had resisted all attempts to curtail its role in civil society.   (By which I mean not civil liberties as we enjoy them now, but the kinds of rights and privileges associated with the ancien regime.)    It does not justify the repression of the Church, but it does help explain why it came to pass.   Furthermore, the Cristeros were at times as brutal as the government they were fighting.  A Cristero partisan assassinated President Obregon as he was taking office, even though Obregon was definitely more moderate than Calles.   While there is great glory in dying for the faith (for which reason we honor the Mexican martyrs), killing for the faith is a more complicated proposition.    Again, the brutality of the Calles regime explains why this happened, but does it justify it?

I am going to leave the final word to Fr. Robert Barron, whose reflections on what it really means to say “Long Live Christ the King” speak volumes.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5e8lbE1vemY&feature=player_embedded]

About David Cruz-Uribe
  • Anne

    “Again, the brutality of the Calles regime explains why this happened, but does it justify it?”

    The more pertinent question is Is what happened under the Calles regime at all analogous to what’s happening in the US today? And the answer is NO, or really, Hell, NO!, depending on how loudly one is allowed to express oneself in comboxes.:)

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Well, I think that on this topic the more pertinent question revolves around the slippery slope argument, which all of us make at some time or another. At the moment there is no real comparison between Mexico under Calles and the US under Obama—really none. But it is harder to answer: do the Obama policies mark a scuffle at the margins of religious liberty (important only in the sense you have to push back when someone pushes in, but not a real threat to religious liberty) or do they mark the first step in an inevitable march towards religious persecution. Both sides in this debate have unconsciously answered this question, but it is rarely discussed openly.

      • Julia Smucker

        David, I think this is a good way of posing the question. The “scuffle at the margins” interpretation accounts for the degree of legitimacy that is there to the conscience concerns, and naming the slippery slope fallacy explains some of the overblown reactions that MM, according to his recent post, doesn’t understand.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Julia, I think it is a mistake to refer to it as the “slippery slope fallacy” as that prejudges the matter. Now I admit that I lean to the “scuffle at the margins” on this matter, but I do admit that there are slippery slopes. The problem, however, is that you can generally only see them after you have slid down them.

  • Julia Smucker

    AMEN to Fr. Barron on the power of nonviolence: now that’s preaching the Gospel!

    David, this is admittedly tangential, but you really should get around to seeing Romero. My only complaint was that they butchered his final homily in order to overdramatize it. But what more than makes up for that are a couple of scenes that show direct parallels between respect (or lack thereof) for the Eucharist and respect (or lack thereof) for the poor.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Julia, I know and every once in a while I think about it. But I somehow never get around to it. I was really put off by the way secular leftists (who otherwise hated the Catholic church) were gaga over this movie and wanted to turn Bishop Romero into Che Guevera in a stole.

      • Julia Smucker

        Yeah, I can see how that would be off-putting, and it’s not hard to imagine either. But I’d say the only “Che Guevara in a stole” moment in the film is the butchered homily; otherwise he just comes off as profoundly pastoral.

        One thing I can’t resist telling, and then I’ll drop this tangent: my favorite scene, because of the potency of the parallel I mentioned, is where the military is occupying the church. Romero and a couple of others go in to get the Blessed Sacrament, and to his speechless shock, the soldiers’ response is to turn around and shoot up the tabernacle.

  • Mark Gordon

    David, structurally this may be the perfect blog post. A mix of personal history, fact, and opinion; a subdued, not strident, tone; the perfect length; lots of great links; well-written; and video. Bravo!

    It seems that those who liked the movie entered the theater expecting to see a metaphor for the United States circa 2012. In fact, that’s precisely why many of them went. Those who didn’t like the movie had no such expectation and were put off by the ham-handed attempt to force that reading.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thank you Mark.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=756600456 Ron Chandonia

    A couple years back, a Mexican student in our diaconate program recommended that I read Jean Meyer’s The Cristero Rebellion. I understand the film was loosely based on Meyer’s work, but one of his principal themes was glossed over: the failure of the institutional Church to support the rebels. While that was hardly surprising in a movie heavy on shoot-em-up scenes, it made the history of the movement seem even more puzzling on the screen than it was in reality.

    However, I really think the mainstream criticism of the movie was really directed at its religious message. More than anything else, it is a story of coming-to-faith. The Cristero general was in fact (and in the film) a mercenary and an unbeliever; in the film, he is depicted as embracing Catholicism because of the example of his young aide, the recently beatified Jose Sanchez del Rio, martyred at age 14. This is hardly the sort of thing film critics relish (loss of faith being much more to their taste).

    Is this a story Catholics should embrace? I’m not sure, partly because of the violence the Cristeros embraced but also because of the Sanchez story-line. The principal witness to the circumstances of Blessed Jose’s martyrdom was evidently a youthful Marcial Maciel, who later founded the Legionaries of Christ. Apparently Vatican authorities trusted his testimony enough to recognize Sanchez’s martyrdom, but Catholic moviegoers might well be more skeptical.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Interesting. I had not known the connection between Fr. Maciel and Blsd. Jose Sanchez, though a quick search turned it up. I hate to ask this question: but to what extent does the story of the martyrdom play a role in the “legend” of the Legionnaires of Christ? By this I mean: did Fr. Maciel exploit this story in his quest to establish and further the Legionnaires (and ultimately, his own fortunes)?

  • El Mono Liso

    I had similar thoughts about not seeing the film, and I also saw the Columbia cover at my father-in-law’s house. The history is complicated, and my own thoughts can be found here:

    http://elblogdelpelon.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/on-the-cristero-war/

  • Thales

    David,

    I saw the movie, and I thought it was very good. Great cinematography and scenery, great sound/music, great action choreography, some quite impressive acting. It’s not a perfect movie — it’s difficult to shrink and simplify the complexities of a historical event with many different players with many different motivations into a couple of hours — but it’s quite good. And because it has a historical grounding, the depiction of the martyrdoms were quite touching and powerful, in my opinion. You should see it when you next get the chance.

    The movie isn’t a whitewashed simplistic good guys versus bad guys narrative. It deals with some nuanced issues: it has characters who wrestle with the question about whether it is proper and Christian to fight or not, and it doesn’t ignore the fact that the Cristeros side was responsible for some atrocities (the infamous train-burning incident is depicted quite prominently in the movie). But it’s difficult to treat these nuances fully and completely in a movie that is trying to cover so many different characters and events, so I can see the criticism that, in some ways, the narrative was simplified. But I thought there was some recognition and wrestling with the nuances you’re looking for. (Which makes me think of the There Be Dragons movie, which I think recommended to you — I think There Be Dragons which is set in the Spanish Civil Way, is in some ways better than For Greater Glory in acknowledging the fact that there is no “good” side in war and in directly depicting the point you make, about the Church hierarchy being closely associated with the flawed aristocracy and helping to explain why the Church repression came to pass. But even so, FGG is a much better crafted movie, all-around, than TBD.)

    In some ways, I think the timing of FGG is unfortunate. FGG was written and made before the HHS mandate came down, so it wasn’t made with the current religious freedom debate in mind at all. But I, as a viewer, couldn’t help but think of the debate at certain times of the movie when certain lines were spoken by the characters. I suspect that this happened to many of the secular critics also, and that this put them off. (On the other hand, I suppose one could argue, like Weigel, that the timing is fortunate because of the current religious freedom debate.)

    So I agree with Mark that some went to the movie “expecting to see a metaphor for the United States circa 2012.” But I disagree with his observation that “Those who didn’t like the movie had no such expectation and were put off by the ham-handed attempt to force that reading.” That’s not what happened. I doubt the secular movie critics are regular readers of Weigel or any other conservative commentator. They weren’t put off by conservative commentary forcing a certain reading of the movie; instead the critics were put off by the movie itself — by the fact that the movie is about Catholic martyrs dying for the Catholic faith. It’s a very “Catholic” movie about Catholic things, and I suspect that would bother most secular critics, or at least strike them as strange. (I was amused at Roger Ebert’s review. His criticism was that it was too Catholic. But it’s a historical account of Catholics being specifically targeted for their Catholicism; what else can you expect?) Anyways, for what it’s worth, although it’s got a 16% rating from critics, it’s got an 85% approval from audience reviews.

    To conclude: I recommend watching it.

    • Thales

      By the way, what’s with the “this is complete crap meant to hold the place” line in the Weigel quote? That’s not him. Are you in the middle of editing your post?

      [That was a placeholder I use to deal with a bug in the WordPress editor. It was not written to comment on Weigel in any way, and I meant to delete it. It has been deleted. Thanks for pointing it out.]

      • Thales

        Cool. Since you’ve fixed the post, you can delete my comment about it, if you’d like, in case you wanted to have a clean comment thread.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          No, my posts and comment threads stand, warts and all! :-)

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thales,

      I did not see Ebert’s review, but it doesn’t surprise. What I found interesting was that several reviews had a tone of disappointment: they seemed to have been hoping that it would be a good, compelling movie, and were unhappy that it was not.

      I guess I may have to actually see it myself! :-) Of course, the closest theater I can find is 50 miles away….

      • Thales

        It only played for a week in my part of the world, and then it was gone. So it’s likely a movie you’ll have to catch on video.

        they seemed to have been hoping that it would be a good, compelling movie, and were unhappy that it was not.

        Interesting. As I said, some of the movie’s aspects are very impressive: beautiful scenery and broad vistas of Mexico, a topnotch soundtrack from James Horner reminiscent of Braveheart, great costumes/set design, good action choreography. It’s got all the basic elements of an epic, like Braveheart, which may explain the tone of your reviewers who were hoping for a compelling movie — all the elements are there for such a movie. But as I said also, it’s a movie with a significant Catholic sensibility, with it depicting Catholic martyrdom, etc. So if a reviewer wasn’t entirely familiar with this Catholic sensibility, I think he or she might not fully “get it.” (In contrast to me and my wife, who were deeply touched by parts of the movie because we were familiar with the Catholic elements.). Finally, from the perspective of plot, the movie isn’t as self-contained or as wholly coherent as Braveheart, for example, because the movie has half a dozen, sometimes disconnected, character plot lines that the movie is trying to all capture.

  • http://digbydolben.wordpress.com digbydolben

    Do you suppose that the American exceptionalists like Chaput and Wiegel will endorse a film on THIS subject–which is far more relevant to the history of Catholicism in America–the history they don’t like to see uncovered? Just akin’ (though I really know the answer, don’t you?)

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Somebody like Cardinal Dolan would be more than willing to talk about it. The Irish Catholics may be American patriots, but they have a long memory for the hurts of the 19th century.

  • Mark VA

    From my traditionalist Catholic point of view:

    I’ve read several reviews of this great film from the secular left sources, and, not surprisingly, all were extremely negative, with many crossing the line into malicious. Likewise, the reviews from the Catholic left I’ve managed to read, while more muted in the intensity of their negativity, nevertheless tended to march in lock step with their secular equivalents.

    For those who can still manage not to nuance things so as to make them fit their leftist (read: Marxist) ideological biases: I would like to recommend viewing the recent EWTN Arroyo interview with the Archbishop George of Chicago, regarding the so called “Affordable Care Act”. The Archbishop is very clear and factual about the enormous impact this law will have on the Church in our country, as it moves into its implementation stage. Also, from a broader perspective, books by Ronald Radosh may fill in many blanks, for those who still have blanks.

    As I look at the rapidly changing situation of the Church in our country, I become increasingly aware of the diminishing sphere of commonality Catholic conservatives and traditionalists have with the hard core Catholic left. We live in interesting times.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      It does seem ironic that you accuse “leftists” of lacking nuance while at the same time conflating them with Marxists. I know lots of Marxists—it’s an occupational hazard in academia :-). But I have met very, very few progressive, left-leaning Catholics who are Marxists. Unless, of course, by marxist you mean any progressive social doctrine you disagree with.

      Let’s try to keep focused on the movie, please.

  • http://gravatar.com/leefstrong leefstrong

    I saw the movie yesterday as part of our local Festival for Freedom. It is sincere – but as a film, it has flaws. Too long, lacks a focus. It needed a better script. My wife, who went with me, was fidgetting and looking around the room for the last hour of it. We need to learn more about what happened, but this movie is not the best way.

  • Mark VA

    Let’s not forget the categories of “useful idiots” and “fellow travellers” – venerable Marxist terms and concepts, not mine (I tend to be more charitable), so they should be acceptable as reference points, no?

    By the way, I didn’t accuse the Catholic Left of lacking nuance, but of grossly misusing it, to avoid getting informed, or to obfuscate. Nuance to the Left is like a Stradivarius to Paganini. Your article about the film “Greater Glory”, which you did not see, is, from my point of view, a good example of misusing nuance.

    To sum it up, you wish to “keep focused on the movie” which you did not see, and probably will not see, because you “… tend to avoid movies that are controversial or hyped”.

    How Kafka would have loved that strip of Mobius logic.

  • Bill Logan

    David, even though you decided to skip the 1989 film Romero, have you seen the recent documentary, “Monseñor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero”? It received a glowing mention in the National Catholic Reporter. It’s available on Amazon and other online retailers.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Bill, no I had not even heard of it. Thanks for the reference. I will add it (along with Romero) to my list of movies to think about seeing!

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=756600456 Ron Chandonia

        Monseñor is excellent. I think it is a great shame the Church has not yet seen fit to do what the people have already done: acknowledge that the man is a saint for our time. Yet in watching the documentary, I was struck by how forthrightly political the archbishop’s homilies were. The secularists in this country are constantly harping about how inappropriate it is for the Church to assume the very role they praise Romero for undertaking.

  • http://rosenzweigshmuesn.blogspot.com/ danielimburgia

    Of course, it’s a given that there is no act of representation that is not entirely shot through with ideology (and I say that as an Icon painter). Still, I question much of the past and current Catholic-Falangist/evangelical-rightist, the wealthiest, most lethally armed and politically powerful form of Christianity in the history of the world, increasing making political use of hysterical screeds about it’s “persecution.”

    I plan to see the movie but I don’t expect to see much “Truth.” What I hope is that at the least it might be a well-wrought work of art that infinitesimally expands our understanding of ‘the human condition,’ if not also clearing up some of our mis-understandings about God, perhaps like Graham Green’s “The Power and the Glory?” Although there are plenty of questionable assertions by ‘the priest’ in P+G as well, like: “When you visualized a man or a woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity–that was a quality God’s image carried with it–when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination” (P+G 131). Well maybe, but too often politically motivated fears based on imaginary persecution has generated plenty of hate. When it comes to inflicting suffering and death on the ‘Other,‘ no matter how weak and powerless that ‘Other’ may be (for example the Jews in Europe) I haven’t found the human imagination wanting in the least. Blessed Shabbat y’all, obliged.

    P.S. I also found the movie “Romero” very inspiring and have a profound love and respect for Archbishop Romero, yet his martyrdom did not save the El Salvadoran people, and all over central America (where I worked in the 80’s) the forces of violence an oppression have maintained power, even if with different labels and forms. Yet I believe with the blessed Archbishop, that, “We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross….The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.  We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.  Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.”

  • Kurt

    When the Catholic is identified only with the social elite and the elite lose political power (Spain, Mexico, etc), it is bad for the Church and bad for religious freedom.

    My fellow progressive Catholics have an admirable concern about the intellectual promotion of the CST and the lack of episcopal leadership on social issues concerning the poor and working classes.

    But progressive Catholics would be better off pondering not the intellectual promotion of CST but the lack of pastoral success with working class Americans.

    The Catholic Church is in a free fall as far as its membership with non-college educated Americans. The 21st century American Catholic Church will soon resemble the 19th century Episcopal Church. Will we have a social justice Church without a working class? I doubt it. The signs are already here.

  • http://digbydolben.wordpress.com digbydolben

    Without anti-Catholicism there simply would have been NO United States of America:

    http://publius-aelius.livejournal.com/724184.html