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For Greater Glory

June 6th, 2012

An awesome movie. Go see it!

by Patrick F. Fagan

A stirring story of faith and heroism in 1920s Mexico has an unsettling relevance to contemporary America.

Directed by Dean Wright
Starring Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria, Eduardo Verastegui, Peter O’Toole

For Greater Glory, a romanticized movie about Mexico’s Cristero War in the 1920s, will appeal to Catholics. And to lovers of freedom to worship. And to Americans who cherish the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, for it portrays precisely the sort of situation our Founding Fathers feared. And therefore to Tea Party folk.

For all these reasons For Greater Glory is receiving very mixed reviews. It is being panned by big newspaper critics, praised by most viewers, and vilified by a few who hate the Church and what it believes.

The narrative is necessarily multifaceted as a history lesson about the Catholic fight for freedom in Mexico during the late 1920s is needed. This is a story about which most Americans, including most American Catholics, are totally ignorant. The film quickly sketches the political and social backdrop and then proceeds to develop the plot around three central figures, all historical.

The first is a Mason and atheist, Enrique Gorostieta Velarde, a one-time general in the Mexican Army who was paid handsomely to turn disparate groups of rebels into a formidable, never-defeated fighting force. The second is a young boy, José Luis Sánchez del Río, later beatified by Pope Benedict XVI, who leaves home to serve with the rebels. And the third is Plutarco Elias Calles, the president of Mexico who started the war .

The movie is, by turns, gripping, inspiring, and heart-rending. For there is a terrific story to be told. After years of increased deprivations of freedoms (catalogued by Pope Pius XI in his 1926 encyclical “On the Persecution of the Church in Mexico”) and escalated by the Calles government into all-out repression, Mexican Catholics, especially in the state of Jalisco, turned to arms. They were called the “Cristeros”, which, loosely translated, means “soldiers of Christ”, and they entered battles with the cry “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” (Long live Christ the King).

The action starts early with the killing of an elderly priest. The record shows that this was by no means an isolated case. By the end of the war more than 90 percent of the priests of Mexico had been expelled or shot. Graham Greene, whose novel The Power and the Glory, is set in this era, called it “the fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth”. (Of course, Greene was writing before the even bloodier Spanish Civil War. There are many parallels, though the most significant difference is that in Spain much if not most of the Army fought on the side of freedom for the Church.)

Most of the Cristeros were good men and women, some of them saints, but others were gritty and sinful. The life of Father Reyes Vega, a priest-general, was very distant from the priestly ideal, though in the movie his character combines two priest-generals, Father Vega and Father Aristeo Pedroza. But their failings cannot tarnish the heroism of many, especially the Cristero martyrs. However this is a movie, not a history book.

With military leaders like these, relations between the Cristeros and the Catholic hierarchy must have been strained at best. In the movie there are hints of this, but no clear delineation. And although the Cristeros were the means by which the Church regained some limited freedom, in the end they fared badly. The war ended with the help of American pressure (motivated more by access to oil and gas than by the ideal of religious freedom). The terms included their pardon, but most of the leaders who had not gone into exile and many of Cristero soldiers were murdered by government forces after the truce. This is not portrayed in the movie.

Keep reading and watch trailer.

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