In the late 1920s, Catholics in Mexico fought for religious freedom against the government which became known as the Cristero War. Based on the true story, “For Great Glory” which opens in theaters June 1 captures this historical event with an all-star cast including Academy-award nominees Andy Garcia and Peter O’Toole as well as Golden Globe winner Eva Longoria in Dean Wright’s directorial debut.
The movie begins with Peter O’Toole as a Catholic priest who scoffs at new President Plutarco Elias Calles’ laws to suppress, if not eradicate, their freedom to worship. O’Toole’s remarkable talents along with the bougainvillea and colonial architecture in an era absent of poverty and pollution quickly set the tone for an hour and a half mini-vacation south of the border. I expected a few hardy battle scenes where good ultimately overcomes evil enjoyed with salty popcorn and a happy ending.
That’s until Santiago Cabrera who plays Father Vega and compañeros counter O’Toole’s character’s dismissal of the government’s intent with the statement: “We cannot allow the godless to take away our freedom.” This text does no justice to the delivery. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like we were in idyllic Mexico anymore and the soundbyte would have staying power throughout the film.
“For Greater Glory” is a magnificent undertaking by producer Pablo Jose Barroso because it depicts the third dimension of the Cristeros’–faith–and in filmmaking, innermost beliefs are difficult to show. Often, they’re even more uncomfortable to watch because even if you’re not Catholic, you have to wonder how strong you would be in the same position.
As noted in history, it’s the people who decided to fight the war and the people who decided to hire the General Gorostieta, played by Andy Garcia, to lead the Cristero fight. The many pockets of Cristero armies joined forces and created a central command. By the end of the war, an estimated 50,000 individuals fought as Cristeros including thousands of women.
Atheist President Calles, well played by actor Ruben Blades, used brute force against the Catholic’s initial peaceful resistance. When this plan failed to work, the stakes are escalated on both sides as unnecessary and merciless deaths mount. Enter General Gorostieta (Garcia), a strategist and decorated military hero, who was known to have been agnostic, but believed in religious freedom as did his devout Catholic wife beautifully played by Eva Longoria.
Initially, Garcia seems detached in his role as the General. Perhaps it was his portrayal of the part because he does pull through at the end with several moving scenes. And before those, we see that the General believes God will win because he seemed to believe in the faith of his army as much as he did in his own confidence to conquer.
Two stand-out performances included Oscar Isaac (“Drive”, “Robin Hood”), a rancher who formed his own Cristero regime before joining the larger union and Santiago Cabrera (“Che”) as Father Vega. Other commendable roles were given by the talented Oscar® nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno (“Maria Full of Grace”) and Eduardo Verástegui (“Bella”).
New to the screen is Mauricio Kuri who played the real-life teenager José Luis Sánchez del Río beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 for his refusal to denounce his faith. Kuri’s innocence lit up the screen a did his affinity with the camera. This young actor’s ability to play difficult scenes with believability should earn him future roles as worthy as this one.
The story’s intensity never dulls which is a credit to screenwriter Michael Love, but overall, I thought the film was too long as I felt the three-year battle fatigue with closing credits.
“For Greater Glory” may not be the kind of film that draws the summer crowds looking for a good shoot ’em up, but it is the kind of film that I think will swell with audience appreciation and leave many, as I, wondering about the wars of today.
More importantly, the film touches the core of a person’s spiritual dimension; the one that no medium or rhetoric can easily portray. We are 3D creations and while ideology may impact our physical or mental being, no human entity can penetrate the individual spirit. This causes me to believe that “For Greater Glory” will be regarded more than an epic; it’s a thinking film about courageous people and historical relevance for people of all faiths.