The Glory of “For Greater Glory”

The Glory of “For Greater Glory” June 1, 2012

A few weeks ago I saw an early screening of For Greater Glory in Los Angeles. After the screening, I was prepared to write a conflicted review, one that celebrated the uplifting intentions of the film but lamented that the script was overstuffed, that it tried to tell too many stories at once and so ended up not telling any one story particularly well. Then a couple things happened: (1) as I sat through the interviews of cast and crew the following day, I began (once again) to question the terms of my critical appraisal, and (2) reading reviews the last couple days, I have to question (also once again) the terms of the movie reviewing industry in general.

First, the important details. For Greater Glory (or Cristiada in the less bland Mexican title) tells of the Cristero War, in which Catholics — from the professionals to the peasants — took up arms when the Communist government of President Calles took away their freedom of worship. The story was all but erased from the Mexican history books because it was thought to reflect poorly on Mexico. But there are many compelling tales and characters involved, from Jose Luiz Sanchez del Rio (played by the luminous Mauricio Kuri), a boy who takes inspiration from a martyred priest (Peter O’Toole) and joins the Cristeros and may pay the ultimate price for his beliefs, to Anacleto Gonzalez Flores (the impossibly handsome Eduardo Verastegui), the “Mexican Gandhi” who battled the government through non-violent means, to General Gorostieda (Andy Garcia), who leaves his wife (Eva Longoria) and children to lead the Cristeros even though he does not share their Christian faith. It’s a rich seedbed of stories, and well worth your attention for 2 hours and 23 minutes.

However, take this review from Michael O’Sullivan in The Washington Post:

But the way in which it goes about this, with all the subtlety of an infomercial, is all but unbearable, except perhaps to those who believe that there is still a war on Catholics — or perhaps on religion itself — happening in this country. A pet project of Mexican producer Pablo Jose Barroso, whose earlier films include the evangelical-themed “The Greatest Miracle” and “Guadalupe,” the movie has a giant chip on its shoulder. Ultimately, it gets in the way of the storytelling.

So, a good movie has subtlety. Got it. It cannot have a chip on its shoulder. And, of course, who could be so foolish as to believe that Catholics’ religious freedoms are under threat today?

Or here are a couple snippets from William Goss of

It’s never difficult to determine which force deserves to be hissed at and which to cheer on, a slant that transforms every lead character into a martyr-in-waiting…At first, he comes across as a scrappy outlet from the all-adult matters of guerrilla warfare, only to serve more cloyingly as a surrogate son for Garcia’s stern leader and, ultimately, the cause’s littlest martyr. José’s initially meandering, arguably pandering subplot pays off with clumsy, shameless scenes of the young boy enduring graphic torture with the dignity of a thousand saints; the violence wouldn’t feel so offensive if the character — indeed based on a real-life figure — didn’t come off as such a transparent dramatic pawn with which to earn our sympathies and spur our heroes into action.

So, a good movie must show the flaws on all sides. It cannot suggest that one group of people is simply better than another. Only George W. Bush believes in good and evil, right?

Finally, Charles Homans in The New Republic two weeks ago (subtitled “The New Mexican Movie US Conservatives Love”) tipped off critics to what was really afoot here: “THE CONNECTION may not be immediately obvious to non-churchgoers. But, for anyone familiar with the air of aggrieved persecution that has permeated the Church, as well as right-leaning Protestant institutions, since President Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued its ruling on contraception, the allegorical value of a Western-style epic about rugged God- and gun-loving individualists doing battle with an overreaching federal government is hard to miss….[However,] casting the Cristero rebellion as a parable of secular government against the believers requires a few historical elisions. For Greater Glory portrays Calles, the father of modern Mexican nationalism, as a godless socialist with a sui generis hatred of all religion. In fact, Calles had welcomed American Protestant organizations into Mexico; he mostly resented the Catholic Church as a rival center of earthly power.”

So, a good movie has to retain the historical complexities and not reduce historical episodes into parables or allegories for present-day issues. (I don’t think the author is quite successful in making this argument, by the way. The film does not portray Calles with “a sui generis hatred of all religion,” but makes clear his opposition is to the Roman Catholic Church. Homans is straining hard to prevent the Cristero War from being “a parable of secular government against the believers.” Can’t have that!

My objection is not so much to these criteria. It’s to the conveniently selective way in which they’re applied. Movies should be subtle and not carry a chip on their shoulder. What about Milk? Milk (which has a 94% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes) portrays Harvey Milk as no less saintly than Jose Sanchez del Rio. Or, although it’s not a movie, Glee carries about ten chips on its musical shoulders and I don’t hear the critical establishment making a peep. Surely it couldn’t be because these shows carry the same chips as the critics do? Of course not!

Or, a good movie cannot show one group being wholly in the right and the other wholly in the wrong. I guess I must have missed all the movies showing how Native Americans were partly responsible for their own fate. Dances with Wolves, which won multiple academy awards, was very clear on the good guys and the bad guys. And please understand: I’m not disagreeing. I’m not saying that Native Americans were partly responsible. My point is that sometimes one side is in the right and the other is in the wrong.

Or, as we learned from Charles Homans, we cannot use movies as foils in our current political battles. Like Pleasantville. Or V is for Vendetta. Or The American President.

Of course, being the victim of a double-standard does not make a movie great. And there are certainly criticisms to be made of For Greater Glory. It’s overwhelmed by its ambitions. It should have focused on Father Christopher, Jose and General Gorostieda. Gorostieda’s family life was entirely unnecessary, and many of the subplots only took time away from the kernel of the story. The acting and cinematography are strong, but the plot and the pacing were weak. Having read up about the Cristero War beforehand, I was bothered that the history was so dramatically simplified and sanitized. The legacy of the Cristeros is more mixed than the film allows. Christians of all people should be the most committed to the truth, and to showing people not only in their saintliness but also in their sinfulness.

Yet the educational value of the film outweighed its shortcomings as entertainment. And it showed simple people of faith who really did make extraordinary sacrifices. The R rating really is unfortunate, since this is a film I would be happy for teenagers young and old to see. Mauricio Kuri is a star in the making — Peter O’Toole compared him to a young Katharine Hepburn, and his performance at the press junket was even more impressive than his performance in the film — and I was moved by the story of Eduardo Verastegui’s conversion and his commitment to making movies that reflect his beliefs. Both, I believe, have big things ahead, and their portrayals of two modern-day saints who died in defense of their beliefs are truly stirring and worth contemplating.

I continue to believe that films can be great in very different ways. Some are great for their artistic integrity. Others are great for their capacity to educate and inspire. The glory of “For Greater Glory” is in the latter. While there are moments of great artistry from the actors or from the filmmakers, an uneven script is overcome by truly extraordinary story of men and women of faith facing the most daunting of obstacles and remaining true to their First Love. It is this that will give “For Greater Glory” its lasting value.

Note: Patheos is hosting a sponsored Movie Club conversation on “For Greater Glory.” In some cases, reviews may be featured on the Movie Club page, but all reviews, for obvious reasons, are independent and not paid features. Please visit the Patheos Movie Club for more.

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