Sunday, June 3, 2012

Reel To Reel: For Greater Glory

Praise the LORD and pass the ammo.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price.
Starring: Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria, Peter O'Toole
Rated: R
Red Flags: Intense war violence, including multiple hangings and atrocities against children

I wonder what a director like Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez would have done with this story of Mexico's Cristero War, an uprising against institutionalized Catholic persecution that claimed more than 90,000 lives and led to a wave of immigration into the U.S. back when nobody was talking about border fences. The conflict has the elements of a neo-Spaghetti Western: bloody violence and ambiguous morality. This production, which was largely funded by the Knights of Columbus, is more of a tribute film to the Cristeros which pulls emotional strings without giving us enough emotional base.

The movie picks up the story in 1926, when Mexican president and atheist Plutarco Elías Calles (Rubén Blades) institutes several laws to curb the Catholic Church's power. The "Calles Laws," as they're called, forbid priests from wearing religious garments in public, expel foreign clergy, and close Catholic schools. We get no background on why Mexico is taking this drastic step. We're barely told of the anti-Church sentiment stemming from the 1910 Mexican Revolution. The film omits a critical point for understanding it: Church-backed counterrevolutionary Victoriano Huerta overthrew and executed President Francisco Madero after the revolution. As I have told people in my re-enacting pursuits, history is complicated.

While we're trying to figure out why Mexico's government is acting like a secular Taliban, it starts laying emotional pipe. We meet José (Mauricio Kuri), a rascally boy pushed into serving Father Christopher (O'Toole) after playing a practical joke on him. The lovable old padre thinks Joselito will make a good altar boy, if the Federales don't shut his church down and kill him first -- which they do. Non-violent resistance against the Calles Laws fails, and another revolution erupts as Catholics are drawn to war in the face of seeing clergy and parishioners harassed and killed.

Shift to Enrique Gorostieta (Garcia), a secular retired general now running a soap factory. The Cristero forces need his expertise for organization and tactics. Going back to war -- especially for the Catholic cause -- doesn't particularly interest him, but a good paycheck helps. The new jefe insists on fighting with honor. Try selling that one to bands of guerrilla banditos who don't need no stinkin' badges.

The film nearly forgets about José until it needs more dramatic pull. He runs off to join the rebels and ends up under the general's wing. This is when the film starts finding some velocity. Gorostieta gets a few victories and wins respect from a reluctant bandito leader. And somehow, he starts drawing closer to GOD. Behind the scenes, U.S.-Mexican relations get a discussion over breakfast and adult beverages as American ambassador Dwight Morrow (Bruce Greenwood) is more interested in protecting U.S. oil interests than ending a conflict he's clueless about.

For Greater Glory's problem is that it displays too many tendencies of a propaganda film: distilling the conflict down into a straight morality play. The film does devote one brief scene to a Cristero atrocity of burning innocent civilians on a train, but it also leaves out the assassination of Mexican President-elect Álvaro Obregón by a Catholic radical, who was set to become President Calles successor.

The film works when it sticks to the innocence of José and the religious epiphany of Gorostieta. It really works when its characters try to understand where GOD is in any of this. My favorite sequence shows a rebel leader -- who is also a priest -- explaining to the general why bad things happen to good people. Hollywood doesn't do well in explaining that. But this film wasn't made in Hollywood; hecho en Mexico.

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