For Greater Glory - SideReel Review
A powerful meditation on a defining chapter in Mexican history, director Dean Wright’s feature debut For Greater Glory explores the complex relationship between religion and politics in a way that’s respectful to both, while also celebrating the spirit of freedom by paying tribute to those who sacrificed their lives in the name of it. Strong performances and vivid period detail draw us into the story, while screenwriter Michael Love sets up the rapidly escalating feud between Mexican president Plutarco Elias Calles and the oppressed Catholics of the country, and introduces us to an unlikely hero whose detachment from organized religion doesn’t color his personal politics. Infused with the style and energy of a classic adventure film, For Greater Glory accomplishes the lofty goal of simultaneously entertaining and educating us early on, although the heaviness of the story and the events depicted cause the tone to shift toward somber and reverent as the conclusion draws near.
Mexico, 1926: Only a few short years after the last shots of the Mexican Revolution were fired, atheist President Calles (Ruben Blades), concerned that Rome’s influence on his fellow countrymen is growing too strong, orders an immediate government crackdown on Catholicism. As the people begin to protest, young troublemaker Jose Luis Sánchez del Rio (Mauricio Kuri) forges an unlikely bond with elderly Father Christopher (Peter O’Toole), and respected General Enrique Gorostieta Velarde (Andy Garcia) leaves military life behind to settle down with his family. But when the protests turn violent -- resulting in the execution of Father Christopher right in front of young Jose -- the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty seeks a leader to organize an armed rebellion against Calles. An atheist himself, Velarde at first appears an unlikely candidate for the job. But manufacturing soap just doesn’t deliver the same thrill that defeating Zapata did, and Velarde has grown restless in his position as a businessman. Initially agreeing to lead the Cristeros against Calles for a substantial payday, Velarde’s fight becomes personal after young Jose and a friend arrive at their camp eager to jump into the fray. Meanwhile, as American ambassador Morrow (Bruce Greenwood) attempts to broker a peace accord between Calles and Rome, quick-draw priest Father Vega (Santiago Cabrera) joins the Cristeros, sparking all-out war between the government and the resistance.
The relationship between religion and politics has always been a touchy subject, and by revisiting the Cristeros War, Wright and Love skillfully explore the ways that it is often more complex than a simple struggle between believers and non-believers. The first time we meet young Jose, he’s lobbing fruit at Father Christopher -- not exactly the kind of behavior you’d expect from someone who will soon become a martyr. Likewise, our first encounter with Velarde finds the military man and loving father supportive of his religious wife and daughters as the Federeales begin storming churches, but he is unquestionably clear that he has little interest in becoming an active churchgoer. It’s an effective approach that adroitly avoids the religious-versus-secular dichotomy while encouraging reflection on the motivations we all have for our spiritual beliefs, and the lengths to which we might go to defend beliefs we don’t necessarily endorse -- even in the face of certain death.
As Velarde, Garcia balances integrity and humanity with the cunning of a military strategist so well that we can see why the man he portrays would have been a logical choice to lead the Cristeros. For the most part, the rest of the cast fares equally well. Cabrera brings a flash of rock-star charisma to his role as a priest who’s as comfortable wielding a pistol as he is a Bible, but it’s in the film’s quieter moments -- where his inner conflict comes into play -- that his character really comes to life. And though Blades is a bit one-dimensional as President Calles, young Kuri carries his scenes with the confidence that makes his character’s ultimate fate deeply affecting. Strangely, composer James Horner’s sweeping score echoes his own work on 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in some of the film’s most dramatic moments, yet combined with Eduardo Martinez Solares’ handsome cinematography, it gives For Greater Glory the feel of a classical Hollywood epic. Beware if you’re unfamiliar with the details or the ultimate outcome of this story, though, because the closer the movie moves towards its ending, the grimmer the tone grows until we’re confronted with two scenes of unthinkable violence. But given the context, both are positively crucial, making For Greater Glory an uncompromised historical epic that’s still relevant in a world where politics and religion remain deeply entangled.