Directed by:Dean Wright
This sweeping historical look at the 1926-29 “Christero War”, waged throughout Mexico by Catholics rebelling against the suppression of their church by then-president Elias Calles, provides generous amounts of little-known history, a wonderfully scenic tour of the country’s landscape and architecture along with enough explicit violence to satisfy any teenage boy’s bloodlust - - but these arrive with so little artistic skill in storytelling that the result is like sitting through a boring college professor’s interminable lecture shored up with gory slides. Given the important and poorly understood period upon which it’s based, For Greater Glory’s results are a cinematic crime, the reducing a fascinating piece of Mexican history to the status of cheesy telenovela.
The facts behind this conflict , while little known in Mexico itself, aren’t in dispute. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church resolutely refused to accept the religious restrictions placed on it by the Mexican constitution of 1917, which grew out of the bloody revolution that had ended 7 years earlier, ending decades of despotic rule by Porfirio Diaz. The government that followed Diaz’s ouster sought to reduce the dominant role of the church in the political and economic life of the country, but it was overthrown by Victoriano Huerta with the considerable support of the church’s hierarchy. When he was in turn overthrown, successive presidents opposed to the role of the church in the nation’s public life applied the secularist laws emanating from the constitution, albiet selectively and in those areas where Catholic sentiment was weakest.
That ended in 1924 with the election of Calles, an avowed atheist who promptly passed an anti-clerical law that quickly came to bear his name. It banned the wearing of clerical garb in public, limited the number of priests who could serve actively in local churches and gave authorities the right to imprison, without trial, any priest who openly criticized the government. The results were predictable; for the next two years, Calles’ blatantly discriminatory legislation triggered protests, the formation of organizations opposed to the law and a successful boycott that led to the outbreak of armed attacks on churches by the police and military beginning in 1927.
Calles underestimated the impact of these violent efforts to suppress Catholicism; isolated incidents of blood exchanges soon irrupted into an armed revolt by those calling themselves “<span class="SpellE">Christeros”. The openly defied federal authority in the name of the church and organized loosely-coordinated rebel units ultimately welded into an effective army under the direction of Enrique Gorostieta, a retired Mexican general hired by The National League of Religious Liberty, one of a number of organizations which supplied money and armaments to expand the revolt.
After nearly 3 years of often-savage bloodshed that claimed the lives of over 90,000 Mexicans, the formal conflict came to an end when a truce brokered by US Ambassador Dwight Morrow was put into effect. The terms of that agreement permitted priests to openly conduct services, but they were no longer allowed to give religious instruction in the country’s schools, which previously had all been Catholic. Most importantly, the government didn’t return ownership of expropriated church property, which remained nationalized under the management of the church’s religious personnel.
But the truce didn’t repeal the sweeping mandates contained in The Calles Law and the government often failed to enforce the former while selectively imposing the latter. Over the subsequent decade, it has been estimated that over 500 Christero leaders and as many as 5000 of their fellow protestors were rounded up and shot. Various sections of the country continued to see enforcement of the law’s provisions with the result that the number of priests actually serving in Mexico fell from 4,500 before the rebellion to just over 330 by the end of the following decade. Most tellingly, it’s been estimated that perhaps as much of 5% of the country’s entire population fled to the U.S. during and after this tragic episode, which wasn’t formally resolved until the election of a Catholic president in 1940.
Many contemporary Mexicans whose ancestors were involved in the uprising have long complained that this grotesque chapter in their country’s history hasn’t been sufficiently examined and when this film arrived there two weeks ago, (6 weeks before it’s release in the U.S.) it instantly became the most talked-about movie of the year.
If only the results could have matched those expectations….
First-time director Dean Wright and his screenwriter Michael Love begin promisingly enough; background events are presented crisply in a press conference at which Calles (a smarmily persuasive Ruben Blades) outlines his reasons for the law that will soon set Mexico ablaze. The script then sets about introducing a large cast via vignettes which attempt to put the historical players in context while simultaneously sketching their motivations. That’s a delicate screenwriting challenge for the best of those in the profession, but Michael Love’s amateurish screenplay makes it impossible for skilled actors like Andy Garcia, Peter O’Toole and Bruce Greenwood to deliver credible performances. Presenting deeply-held religious beliefs becomes an especially difficult challenge in any circumstances, but watching O’Toole desiccated features as he converts a young thief into a future martyr or listening to Garcia’s musings on the need for religious freedom as a prerequisite for religious faith destroys the even slightest expectation the movie will improve as it progresses. It’s so intent on trying for Dr. Zhivago-style historical sweep that it jerks from scene to scene, wasting the talents of fine supporting actors like Bruce McGill and Eva Longoria. Mauricio Kuri’s role as Jose Sanchez del Rio, the teenager canonized by the church for refusing to deny his religious beliefs, has to be the most saccharine performance in recent memory.
The relentless paucity of intelligent dialogue cohabits with slapdash plotting: a crucial train robbery which damages the rebels reputation, the assassination of various religious figures, the craven supply of U.S. arms to Calles in exchange for oil concessions and Gorostieta’s death fall victim to screenwriter’s maudlin lines and the director’s lack of a visual comand. The result? A film susceptible to one word definitions such as mawkish, sophomoric and banal.
Wright’s made a successful career over the last 15 years or so as a visual effects producer on such films as Titanic and the Lord of The Rings trilogy; that background supplies some energy to the action sequences here, ably shot by cinematographer Eduardo Martinez-Solares. And Americans will find the film’s locations and period architecture handsomely presented - - but those small blessings can neither offset nor justify suffering through more than 2&½ hours of this egregious exercise in garbled religious polemics.
The Verdict? Before accepting another screenwriting assignment, Michael Lord should be made to stand in the corner and repeat over and over, “I must learn how to write credible dialogue. As for Wright? He shouldn’t give up his day-job as a creator of big-budget special effects.
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