DVD review: For Greater Glory. ARC Entertainment and Dos Corazones Films. 143 minutes. Rated R (violence, some disturbing images).
It may be hard to believe, but Mexico once tried to wipe out Catholicism. That brutal effort, and the ill-fated war it spawned, is the subject of For Greater Glory.
The film, funded by the Knights of Columbus, popped in and out of theaters and quickly vanished this year. That's a pity, because it was better than that -- both for its star power, its production values and the historical lesson about religious freedom.
The film tells of the short, three-year war against the efforts of President Plutarco Elias Calles to wipe out Mexican Catholicism in the 1920s. The anti-clerical brutality gave rise to a guerrilla force known as the Cristeros, or Soldiers of Christ. They posted some early victories, and Calles agreed to allow some freedoms. Many Cristeros, however, refused to accept anything less than victory; thousands were hunted down and killed, and the war itself was largely forgotten.
Shot for a reported $12 million, the film resembles the recent There Be Dragons in sweep and intensity. Part western, part World War I in its look, the film pits legions of rifled soldiers against pistol-packing horsemen.
Calles' Federales hang priests, burn churches, throw crucifixes onto bonfires, even kill women and children who voice faith in Jesus. The violence is graphic and the body count is high.
Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia), a general turned businessman, tries to ignore the bloodshed but finds it hard to refuse a direct plea from the Cristeros. His wife finally convinces him to do the right thing.
The guerrillas are painted as warrior-saints (some were even canonized by the Vatican): quick with guns and bombs, pious around crosses and images of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Still, the Mexicans in general are portrayed as multifaceted human beings, not the cardboard peasants and banditos of so many other movies.
One oddity: The guerrilla war cry is given as "¡Viva Cristo Rey!" It was actually "¡Viva Cristo Rey! ¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!" Maybe the Knights of Columbus wanted the film to appeal to Protestants, who don't share their devotion to Mary.
Under Gorostieta's leadership, the rebellion gains ground, with even women helping smuggle food and ammunition. But high-level politics are against the Cristeros: Both the Vatican and the U.S. government seek an end to the fighting, the latter to keep business deals flowing. For Greater Glory avoids accusing the Vatican, but it makes the American ambassador cynical and callous, even ignoring the sight of corpses hanging on telegraph poles.
Garcia does a decent job as the reluctant commander, starting as a paid consultant, then gradually becoming a believer. Ruben Blades underplays his role as Calles, cultured in manners, casual about the need to slaughter opponents. Eva Longoria has a brief but decent role as Gorostieta's supportive wife.
Peter O'Toole plays a gentle though rather dotty old priest who sacrifices his life rather than flee Calles' soldiers. His friendship with a young boy is supposed to lend a softer tone to the film. But given the well-publicized problem of priests and young boys -- over the last three decades -- this seems like an incredibly tone-deaf element in the plot.
The boy, José Luis Sanchez, is undoubtedly included in the story because he was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, as were a couple of dozen priests and Cristeros. That seems yet another bit of cynicism: The church seemed to do little to halt the killings, but it honored the victims after their deaths.
The DVD edition adds a lengthy back story on the Cristeros, with impressive sourcing by bishops and historians. Perhaps the DVD will let the Knights of Columbus at least recover production costs. Thus far, the fate of For Greater Glory seems as sad as the events it retells: It has made less than $10 million worldwide.
Commentators have sometimes compared the anti-clerical laws of Mexico and the health regulations of the Obama administration, which is trying to make all insurers -- including Catholic colleges, hospitals and dioceses -- provide coverage for abortion and birth control. That's an incredible leap of logic. For Greater Glory works better as a parable on the need for religious freedom. Not to mention the need to dial back violence -- not only physical but verbal and legal.
James D. Davis