If famed British writer Graham Greene had not written his great 1940 novel “The Power and the Glory” about a “whisky priest” running from personal demons as well as Mexican federal troops, few in the English-speaking world would probably be aware of the Mexican government’s war on the Catholic Church in the early 20th century.
It began with the election of Plutarco Elías Calles as president in 1926 and continued into the 1930s, although the civil war itself formally ended with a peace agreement signed in June 1929. Astonishingly, 90,000 people lost their lives in the three-year conflict, a war fought with savagery on both sides.
Contrary to the assertions in press material for the new film “For Greater Glory” about that bloody struggle, the Cristero rebellion has been portrayed in a number of feature films and docs made since 1929. But it is fair to say that “For Greater Glory” is probably the first English-language film to dramatize this little-known struggle for North American audiences.
Unfortunately, instead of looking deeply into the root causes of this conflict and the atrocities on both sides, this film resurrects the so-called Cristero War for a religious-themed film about Catholic martyrs. As such, it ignores the role the church played in the Mexican feudal society, which concentrated wealth and power in the hands of that country’s elite and church leaders, and makes the Mexican president, cagily played by Rubén Blades, into a tyrannical villain.
The quote the film is built around is that there is “no greater glory than to give up your life for Christ.” The characters in his film do so with pronounced eagerness.
The film features an impressive cast — Peter O’Toole even has a brief turn as a persecuted priest — with battles and derring-do in colorful Mexican locations under the direction of Dean Wright, a visual effects guru (“Titanic,” “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “Chronicles of Narnia”) making his directing debut. But the film’s agenda overwhelms any dramatic inquiry into the complexities of this tragic civil war.
Certainly the Mexican government’s crackdown on religious freedom was appalling. Indeed Greene himself said his turning into a Christian and later a Catholic began during his visit to Mexico in 1938 where he witnessed the heroic struggles of the peasants.
Andy Garcia plays retired general Enrique Gorostieta, who is recruited to lead the disorganized rebels despite the fact he is more of an agnostic than a man of religion. Oscar Isaacs plays a ferocious rebel leader who comes into conflict with Gorostieta before fighting under his command. Catalina Sandino Morena (the beautiful star of “Maria Full of Grace”) is a composite of several women who joined the Cristero forces while Santiago Cabrera plays a priest who takes up arms.
The film, written by Michael Love, contains too many subplots but without any of its characters portrayed in any depth. Garcia perhaps comes the closest but the aura of noble heroism casts too great a shadow for his intriguing character to get full exposure. Mauricio Kuri plays a mischievous young boy drawn more and more to the righteous Cristero cause but here too the character is unable to achieve more than holy goodness.
Where Greene knew which side he was on in “The Power and the Glory,” he also knew it was essential to his story to have flawed heroes and idealistic villains. The makers of “For Greater Glory” remain oblivious to the greater needs of drama. They cast their characters and stories in a black-and-white moral world that easily devolves into noble heroes, hate-filled villains, shifty cowards and self-sacrificing youths. More’s the pity given that this little-known story was ripe for a Greene-like examination of the power of faith and the wrench of opposing political forces where each side truly believes it speaks for “the people.”
Opens: June 1 (ARC Entertainment)
Production companies: ARC Entertainment in association with Dos Corazones Film presents a New Land Films production
Cast: Andy Garcia, Oscar Issacs, Catalina Sandino Morena, Santiago Cabera, Rubén Blades, Eva Longoria, Peter O’Toole, Eduardo Verástegui, Mauricio Kuri, Nestor Carbonell, Karyme Lozano, Bruce Greenwood, Bruce McGill
Director: Dean Wright
Screenwriter: Michael Love
Producer: Pablo José Barroso
Director of photography: Eduardo Martínez Solares
Production designer: Salvador Parra
Music: James Horner
Costume designer: Mariestela Fernández
Editors: Richard Francis-Bruce, Mike Oden Jackson
R rating, 145 minutes