By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, June 1, 2012
An epic dramatization of a little-known chapter of Mexican history called the Cristiada -- in which the country’s Roman Catholics rebelled against a government crackdown on religion -- “For Greater Glory” is at times so heavy-handed that the movie itself seems at war. Unfortunately, the enemy is not just a repressive administration, but the audience.
When the fighting is finally over, two hours and 23 minutes after it begins, you may feel like surrendering, along with President Plutarco Calles (Ruben Blades), who in 1926 signed into law a systematic smothering of Catholicism.
Now, before accusations of anti-Catholic bias are flung, it should be noted that the film actually succeeds on several levels. Most significantly, it brings to light an important event that is not typically taught in history class. Before now, who ever heard of the Cristiada, or the Cristeros, the soldiers of Christ -- some of whom were priests -- who took up arms against their government? Second, it argues forcefully for freedom of religion. Who can find fault with that?
But the way in which it goes about this, with all the subtlety of an infomercial, is all but unbearable, except perhaps to those who believe that there is still a war on Catholics -- or perhaps on religion itself -- happening in this country. A pet project of Mexican producer Pablo Jose Barroso, whose earlier films include the evangelical-themed “The Greatest Miracle” and “Guadalupe,” the movie has a giant chip on its shoulder.
Ultimately, it gets in the way of the storytelling.
Unsurprisingly, martyrdom bookends the tale, beginning with the hanging of a priest (played by a frighteningly frail-looking Peter O’Toole), and ending with the torture and execution of Jose Luiz Sanchez Del Rio (Mauricio Kuri), an angelic 13-year-old boy. The real-life Jose was beatified -- the first step toward sainthood -- by the Vatican in 2005.
There’s nothing wrong with saints, of course, or with saintly people for that matter. But it does help if they’re shown to be a little bit human as well. O’Toole’s Father Christopher and Kuri’s Jose are so clean, they practically squeak. It’s as if they’re made of rubber, not flesh.
Andy Garcia brings more nuance to the lead role of Enrique Gorostieta Velarde, the Mexican general and religious skeptic who comes out of retirement to lead the rebels. His character -- a man whose belief in freedom is stronger than his religious faith -- is a fascinating one and merits his own movie. Just not this one. Garcia gets lost in the cast of thousands, which includes Eva Longoria, Oscar Isaac, Nestor Carbonell and Catalina Sandino Moreno.
“For Greater Glory” means well, but the movie is a long, hard slog. It almost feels like it would be better served by the format of a three-night TV miniseries, which would at least dissipate the blunt force of its sermonizing.
As it applies to the film, the slogan of the rebels seems especially apt. “Viva el Cristo Rey” (meaning “Long live Christ the King”) is repeated about 1,000 times in the course of the movie, which gives new meaning to the term “long.”
Contains scenes of violence and torture.