Thursday, May 31, 2012

Cristiada: A Cautionary Tale?

A review of the film “For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada” -- screenplay by Michael Love, directed by Dean Wright

Recent months have seen a number of American bishops respond defiantly to the health insurance mandate issued by the Obama presidency, and administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, which would require employers, including religious institutions, to provide coverage for contraception and abortion, regardless of that institution's moral beliefs. We can tell ourselves that the next few years would bring about a "dry martyrdom," where many would be inconvenienced or greatly distressed, but no one would be fined or imprisoned, let alone put to death. We as Americans tell ourselves that the worst could never happen here.

But what if it already had, and within living memory? FOR GREATER GLORY is the true story of the rebellion which arose out of the Mexican government's persecution of Catholics in the 1920s.

Believing that foreign powers are using the Church to interfere with Mexico's internal politics, including efforts to modernize the developing nation, President Plutarco Elías Calles (played by Latino singer-musician Ruben Blades) wins the support of his legislature in enforcing the anti-clerical laws already enshrined in the Mexican Constitution of 1917. His actions against the Mexican people bring about the Cristero War (aka Cristiada) from 1926 to 1929. It is a chapter of Mexican history barely touched upon in American schools, and until very recently, virtually eradicated from Mexican history books.

This film is the directorial debut for Wright, a veteran visual effects supervisor, with such works to his credit as The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King (2003), the second and third parts of the Lord of the Rings cinematic trilogy. This alone would guarantee the artistic quality of the work, and in this respect, it does not disappoint. It stars the Oscar-nominated actor, Andy Garcia, himself a native of Cuba, as Enrique Gorostieta Velarde, the esteemed general coaxed out of retirement to turn a rag-tag rebellion into a united army. Gorostieta's motivations may have been only partially altruistic -- he was not a religious man, but a freemason who was paid handsomely by the rebels, and whose political ambitions may have been a factor -- the movie shows him being inspired by the childlike faith of a young boy, a thirteen-year-old volunteer named José Luis Sanchez del Rio, a role beautifully played by a heretofore unknown actor, Mauricio Kuri. When the boy is captured and killed by the Federales, the general finds himself embracing the spirit of the Cristero movement, and dies in action as a man of faith.

Eva Longoria stars as Tulita Gorostieta, the general's wife, whose devotion to her faith first inspires the general to consider the rebels' offer. Peter O'Toole, the brilliant and Academy Award-winning actor, plays a brief but stirring role as Father Christopher, the missionary priest who first takes an interest in the young José and encourages him to do good. The good father is captured and executed while waiting in the church wearing black priestly vestments, as if prepared to celebrate his own funeral. Bruce Greenwood stars as the American ambassador Dwight Morrow, who is sent to Mexico by President Calvin Coolidge (played unconvincingly by Bruce McGill, who could never be mistaken for "Silent Cal"), and who attempts to broker an end to the violence. While mildly sympathetic to those being oppressed, Morrow's critical objective is to protect America's commercial interests; the Catholic faith, and the attempts to eradicate it, are bad for business.

The film is suitable for adults and adolescents, but the violent battle scenes, the executions, and in particular, the torture of young José Luis by the local police (coupled with the indifference of the boy's own father to his religious ferver), are far too disturbing for young children. The movie ends on a bittersweet note, with the promise of victory for the Cristeros, but the story itself ends only recently. In 1992, the constitution was finally amended permitting legal status to religious associations, and lifting restrictions on clerics. In 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized a group of twenty-five Cristero martyrs. Finally, in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI beatified thirteen additional Cristero martyrs, including young José Luis Sanchez del Rio.

And so we return to the question asked before, with a twist: recent events being as they are, can this happen here in the United States?

In a CNS News interview, Andy Garcia spoke of the timeliness of the movie to the present day:

It’s a fight for religious freedom, but really a greater umbrella it sits under is the concept of absolute freedom. There are countries all over the world right now that are still fighting, in the middle of a fight for those rights, and people have been deprived of those rights.

We have to remind ourselves that these are precious things that we enjoy here in America, but these rights were fought for here also and that we need to preserve them.

Garcia was also asked whether what happened in Mexico nearly a century ago could happen here.

There could be a parallel drawn there. Sure.

I think the bishop, just like the businessman ... should have the right to make those decisions freely and that’s what I believe in.

This is a film that Hollywood would not make, and so is produced and distributed independently. FOR GREATER GLORY opens tomorrow in select theaters across the United States. The following website can assist in finding a location:

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