Six years after a bloody revolution that left more than a million dead, Mexico faced another brutal war that pit Mexicans against Mexicans: The Cristeros War or Cristiada. The year is 1926 and newly elected president Gral. Plutarco Elías Calles signs into law the highly restrictive “Law for Reforming the Penal Code” aimed at the Catholic Church and which severely penalized priests, nuns and followers. Economic boycotts proved fruitless and in August of that year, 400-armed rebels engaged federal troops and ended the fight after they ran out of ammunition. But the fuse was lit and the three-year war that followed cost the lives of over 90,000 Mexicans and forced many others into exile.
It’s a story that deserves to be told passionately and with respect, without resorting to stereotypes and acknowledging those grey areas that history (and fiction) favors. Alas, “For Greater Glory,” produced by the faith-based film company Dos Corazones, opts for a panoramic, broad stroke, black and white, cliché-ridden, multi-character version of the story. It tries to compress three years of history into two hours and forty minutes, James Horner bombastic score included.
Michael Love’s script throws everything AND the kitchen sink at the screen: battle scenes, backroom political shenanigans involving the United States, bandoleros and atheists who undergo a Catholic conversion, and martyrs whose torture and tragic deaths would have made the ultra-Catholic Mel Gibson proud. And, frankly, I wish Gibson had directed “For Greater Glory” instead of first-time director Dean Wright: Gibson would have brought a tighter focus and real emotion to the story.
The cast of characters include: President Calles (Rubén Blades, who tries his darnedest best to provide nuance to a character the script presents as an old-fashioned goateed villain); General Gorostieta (Andy García), the Mexican Revolution general and atheist recruited to lead the Cristeros Army; Anacleto González Flores (Eduardo Verástegui), a pacifist lawyer; Victoriano “El Catorce” Ramírez (Oscar Isaacs), the bandido turned holy guerrilla soldier; and our martyrs du jour, Father Christopher (Peter O’Toole, looking befuddled throughout his brief appearance) and the young boy José Luis Sánchez (Mauricio Kuri) who you know will become a sacrificial lamb as soon as he is “adopted” by both Father Christopher and later Gorostieta.
For a war that supposedly provided Mexican women another platform to prove their patriotism, they get short shrifted by the script. Yes, it occasionally shows them smuggling ammunitions to their men but more often than not their roles are either seen as devout housewives (in the case of Gorostieta’s wife portrayed by Eva Longoria) or righteous revolutionaries (Catalina Sandino Moreno).
The film also suffers from an acute case of linguistic identity. The main characters in the film all speak English BUT the campesinos, the guerrilleros, the lowliest of the lowliest all speak Spanish. This linguistic confusion becomes even more head-scratchingly laughable when, in one scene, Calles addresses the Mexican media in English, and his assistants in Spanish.
Gorostieta is touted throughout the film as a major military strategist. And yet, we see very little of him in action. Love and Wright never really explore, in depth, his military contributions to the Cristeros’ cause. He spends most of the time either lamenting not being in battle or, once he is, sitting under a tree overlooking the military camp.
“For Greater Glory” doesn’t care about nor is even interested in context. Why moved Calles to sign such a restrictive law in the first place? There is, indeed a history full of resentment in Mexico towards the Catholic Church and its support of the privileged classes. But why bother with such nuances when you can paint everything in black and white with such a broad brush when you can have characters deliver inspirational speeches and righteous arguments in a language as tendentious as that used in “Gods and General”, the 2003 star-studded dull Civil War epic starring Robert Duvall and Jeff Daniels based on Jeff Shaara’s book? Seeing such professionals as García, Longoria and Blades deliver such clunkers as “I believe in religious freedom and I believe in you” without ever cracking a smile is far more epic, and heroic, than anything depicted in this monumentally bad film.