Film Review: For Greater Glory

May 30, 2012

“What price would you pay for freedom?”  This forceful and haunting question drives the film For Greater Glory, coming to theatres June 1.  For Greater Glory chronicles the story of the tyrannical and violent persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico in the early Twentieth century.  The rebellion which ensued, called the Christeros War, involved an army of over 50,000 fighting men and thousands of women in the feminine brigade of Joan of Arc providing logistical support.  This true story, daring to show the efforts of a rebellion which have remained long hidden, captures the enshrinement of Catholicism in the hearts and culture of the faithful. The unlikely hero of For Greater Glory arrives on the scene only after numerous attempts to peacefully upset the persecution of Catholics prompted by the anti-religious measures of President Plutarco Elis Calles (Ruben Blades). The National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty had collected signatures for petitions and orchestrated boycotts but all of these endeavors to defend Mexican religious liberty were to no avail.  Having exhausted all apparent means of peaceful resistance and compelled by the nation-wide escalation of violence, the National League began to organize an army. Every army needs a leader, and the officials of the National League recruit the decorated soldier General Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia) to champion their cause.  The irony of the choice of Gorostieta to lead a modern crusade reveals itself as viewers discover Gorostieta is himself a nonbeliever.  Among those Gorostieta commands in battle are the warrior priest Fr. Vega (Santiago Cabrera) and the irresistible outlaw, Victoriano ‘El Catorce’ Ramírez (Oscar Isaac). Woven into the heart of this narrative of the Christeros War, is the portrayal of the life of Bl. José Sánchez del Río.  A mischievous young boy, José becomes an altar boy.  Under the guidance of Fr. Christopher (Peter O’Toole), José develops a fervent faith.  When José’s spiritual mentor becomes a victim of President Calles’ anti-clerical campaign, however, José is galvanized to action and joins the Christeros. From the outset, the film carries a compelling sense of gravitas.  As the film begins, a remarkable quote rolls gently across the screen, displaying the lyrics of the film’s opening song which courageously present the film’s timeless themes: “Between heaven and earth, light and dark, faith and sin, lies only my heart.  Lies God and only my heart.”  There can be no question that faith animates and directs the heroes of For Greater Glory. Although criticized by some for its graphic depictions of violence, the film portrays the reality the Mexican people experienced.  Martyrs like Bl. Miguel Pro suffered greatly for the faith.  The courage of the Christeros confronts the frequently emasculating aspects of American culture, and seeing their story may inspire young Catholic men and women to seek the glory of suffering, in the wide variety of forms suffering comes in, for the faith. By its striking presentation, the film reminds the faithful of the frequently forgotten cost of believing.  The historical facts and stirring portrayal of faith render the film more appropriate for younger audiences than its severe R-rating suggests. Difficulty marks the first hour or so of the film.  For those unfamiliar with the historical accounts of the events preceding the conflict, the initial action can be burdensome to follow.  A host of minor characters are introduced, but swiftly forgotten as the story develops.  The benefit of Producer Pablo José Barroso’s insistence on a sprawling historical narrative, however, will preserve For Greater Glory as a lasting production.  By attempting to portray so many moments in Mexican history, the film possesses a richness which simply cannot be mined in one viewing. For Greater Glory avoids the excessive piety and inferior production quality which often burden religious films.  Treating a host of moral quandaries and a brilliant portrayal of conversion, give the movie elements that will appeal to a wide audience.  Furthermore, being filmed on location in Mexico, the film’s photography features stunning landscapes and picturesque villages.  Coupled with music by James Horner (Titanic, Braveheart, Field of Dreams) and respectable visual effects, the film has a legitimate claim to the epic pretensions it boasts. Among the most profound elements of the film’s religious appeal is its treatment of the priesthood.  The filmmakers brilliantly link the murders of clerics to Christ’s own sacrifice by including prominent crucifixes in the scenes of martyrdom.  Although the fighting padre Fr. Vega is a conflicted character (in the tradition of Graham Green’s whisky priest or Abbé Faria of The Count of Monte Cristo) touching moments of his sacramental ministry illuminate his deep-rooted priestly identity. Striking to the heart of the current controversies surrounding religious freedom in the United States, it seems For Greater Glory could not appear in a more timely moment.  Both the film’s producer and Steve Bannon of ARC Entertainment, the film’s distributer, highlighted For Greater Glory’s Providential release.  Likewise a number of American bishops, such as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York, Seán Cardinal O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore and Chairman of the USCCB’s Committee for Religious Liberty have sung the film’s praises.  The film had been in production long before the recent assaults on American Religious liberty began, but the thoughtful viewer will gain much from pondering the connections between Mexico’s secularization laws and the persecution happening before our eyes. Far from being a blind dogmatic presentation, For Greater Glory will inspire its audience to reflect on the conflict besieging American religious freedom and perhaps motivate complacent souls to action.  To view the film as a prediction of America’s immediate future is perhaps too simplistic. Ultimately, however, if the film’s message is prophetic, the admonition of For Greater Glory is daunting. [youtube]

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