In a nutshell: For Greater Glory tells the tale of the Cristeros, those Mexican Catholics who in 1926 took up arms against their government to defend their religious freedom after Catholicism was effectively outlawed by President Plutarco Elías Calles. The Cristeros’ leader, an agnostic, experiences a personal conversion, while his soldiers’ faith and endurance is tested.
For the sake of full disclosure, I should mention that I am an old-school Catholic who attends the Traditional Latin Mass as is celebrated (with general accuracy) by the priests in the film. I am also an aficionado of Hispanic culture and was well aware of the plight of the Cristeros prior to the production of the film. However, neither fact has biased me in my take on the film. In fact, they make it more difficult for me to write this review because I wanted to love this movie. But I did not.
First and foremost, the film holds some objective value for two reasons: First, it exposes an almost entirely forgotten episode of Mexican history to a wider audience, so it is educational in that respect. Second, it is a film that takes Catholicism seriously, which, suffice to say, is a breath of fresh air for this papist.
A lot of the blame for my dissatisfaction with the film comes from Michael Love’s ambitious but amateurish script — trust me; as a former aspiring screenwriter, no one recognizes ambitious but amateurish writing better than myself. The script takes on a burden which, had it been written by more able, seasoned hands, would have made for a great epic and ensemble piece. The ingredients are there. The real-life drama needs little embellishing for the screen. The script just has to tie it together, and that is what it failed to do. It seems, at times, that the script is missing whole chunks of its own story.
For example, following the brutal enforcement of the Calles laws, we see the massacre of a church congregation by Federales. Two scenes later, in the offices of the National League for the Defense of Religious Freedom, which conducts a campaign of passive resistance to the government, the group’s leader, Blessed Anacleto González Flores, is urged to join the armed rebellion. Wait, what armed rebellion? All the viewers have been exposed to thus far was a church massacre. We are just told there is an armed rebellion with little set up, though our imaginations fill the gap that of coursethere is an armed rebellion, because these laws are so bad. But I have a hunch that this omission was due to careless editing — due to the presumed desire to tamp down the film’s already considerable running time — rather than sloppy writing.
One frustrating scene (at least for me) was seeing Catalina Sandino Moreno’s character, Adriana, collecting petitions to protest the Calles laws on behalf of the League until another character casually suggests an economic boycott, instead of a petition. When she passes on this idea to the rest of the League leadership, they react as if it is the most brilliant, innovative thing and not actually the first concept taught in Civil Disobedience 101. Perhaps I am being overly critical, but this was an example of the script’s sloppiness making its characters sound like naïve idiots.
But this is not out of the ordinary in the movie: Drama is set up and the actors clearly try their damnedest to make it believable, but it is as thin as the paper the script was printed on. The script attempts to build an arc for Blessed José Sánchez del Río by first showing him as a bad kid irreverent towards the Faith, manifested by his throwing a tomato at Peter O’Toole’s Father Christopher — wow, what a bad seed — then showing him being apprenticed to the kindly old priest as punishment. Blessed José is training to be an altar boy when he witnesses Father Christopher’s martyrdom and resolves to join the Cristeros. So, in a matter of days, this kid goes from being irreverent to being prepared for martyrdom? Frankly, it’s a disservice to the memory of an heroic saint, who was most probably devout for his entire short life.
(I hate to digress, but the relationship between Father Christopher and Blessed José should be addressed. Now, I am not under the delusion that more than a tiny minority of priests are pederasts. That being said, I know that most people are not of a like mind, and when they see the the elderly, somewhat lecherous-looking Peter O’Toole embracing Blessed José and kissing him on the forehead, their minds will immediately make an inappropriate connection. Obviously, the love between the two characters is completely innocent, but I felt obliged to save you the potential awkwardness. Or perhaps, I just planted that idea in your head when it probably would not have occurred to you anyway. All well.)
We see another contrived arc with the character of Father Vega, the soldier-priest. Following a successful heist on a civilian train carrying ammunition, his brother is quite suddenly shot in the back and killed, and that’s all it takes for him to angrily order the torching of the train which, unbeknownst to him, is still carrying civilians. But the most glaring example of forced drama is the relationship between Andy Garcia’s Enrique Gorostieta and Blessed José.
When the boy joins the Cristeros, a father-son bond rapidly develops between the two as Gorosteita is impressed with the boy’s enthusiasm. This is not in itself unbelievable. It is when Blessed José is captured by the Federales that things become a little contrived. Gorostieta is driven to tears following the initial fruitlessness of the search for the boy and says, “He inspires me.” But Blessed José is never shown doing anything more inspirational under Gorostieta’s watch than any of the other Cristeros, save for praying over his meals and wearing a crucifix. And the lack of development in these characters’ relationship leads to my biggest complaint about the film.
The Cristeros never explain why they fight and would die for their faith; they just say they do and they would and it’s left at that. It is merely taken for granted that Catholicism is something worth fighting for, but why? Gorostieta and Blessed José could have had their relationship augmented by an exploration of these issues, but for some reason, the writer and the director chose not to go down that road. There is a lot of “who,” “what,” “where,” and “when” but so little “why.” Despite all the crucifixes, Miraculous Medals, and scapulars they may wear and all the Marian banners they may carry, ironically, their faith is not quite that compelling. Again, being a convinced Catholic allows you to use your imagination to fill in those gaps, but not every viewer will have that advantage. This is the central flaw of the film that most reviews have completely missed.
There are good things to say about the film that ultimately make it worth seeing. The production and costume design are sumptuous and stylish while staying realistic, the score is sweeping and manages to elevate the drama to a grandeur it might not have achieved without it, and the action scenes are frequent and often enjoyable. Blessed José’s martyrdom and the final scene of Gorostieta’s demise almost drove me to tears, which is saying quite a lot.
On to the acting. If there is any reason to see this movie, it is for Mauricio Kuri’s performance as Blessed José Sánchez del Río. Child actors are typically unreliable, but Kuri’s turn as the young saint is marvellous, especially in the scenes of his torture and martyrdom. Andy Garcia has that classic cinema quality that makes him uniquely suited for this latter-day attempt at a David Lean-style epic, and as a practicing Catholic and political activist for a free Cuba, it is obvious the themes of the movie are close to his heart. This shows in a reliable and engaging lead performance as General Enrique Gorostieta, even when the script lets him down.
Ruben Blades’s performance as the villain President Calles is very enjoyable — one of my favorites actually — and his scenes with Bruce Greenwood as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Dwight Morrow cynically negotiating the end of the Cristero War to gain American access to Mexican oil fields are probably the most believable, from a writing perspective. Santiago Cabrera is solid as the soldier-priest Father Vega. Oscar Isaac is particularly entertaining as the swarthy, roguish Cristero commander “El Catorce,” and after a kickass introduction where he single-handedly fends off 14 Federales, his character is built up to ultimately no end, another disappointment of the movie.
Catalina Sandino Moreno and Eduardo Verastegui are underused (again, probably victims to the editor’s scissors) and basically hit their marks as the pacifist Catholic activists Adriana and Blessed Anacleto González Flores but do little to rise above the lackluster script. Karyme Lozano deserves special recognition for her brief role as Blessed José’s mother; the combination of pain and pride on her face and the tears in her eyes when her son resolves to join the Cristeros is quite believable and heartwrenching.
Peter O’Toole appears essentially in an extended cameo as Father Christopher, but this is quite all right. It is impossible for an actor of O’Toole’s experience and talent to phone in anything. Eva Longoria delivers possibly the weakest performance of the film as Gorostieta’s wife, Tulita, and is overexposed in the billing and advertising for what’s probably a grand total of maybe seven to 10 minutes of screentime.
Anywho, I give the film a 6/10 for its value as an historical piece and on the relative strength of its visuals, score, and performances. It just suffered from a lackluster script and inexperienced direction.
¡Viva Cristo Rey!
(See also: Preview: “Cristiada/For Greater Glory”)