Sunday, June 3, 2012

For Greater Glory (Cristiada) [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  Roger Ebert (2 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review
La Opinion-Los Angeles, CA's review - [ESP-original, ENG-Trans]
Hoy-Chicago's review - [ESP-original, ENG-Trans]

Those who have followed my blog over the past year and a half would note that I've repeatedly tried to search out opinion and provide links from other lands regarding films that touched on issues that crossed borders.  I believe that this film, For Greater Glory (Cristiada) directed by Dean Wright, screenplay by Michael Love proves the wisdom to taking this approach.

I write this because one could easily approach this movie very cynically.  This film about the Cristero Rebellion in Mexico of 1926-29 [ESP, ENG-trans] (which one of my many Mexican Servite friends and one who I deeply respect called with pride "the true final phase" of the Mexican Revolution [ESP, ENG-trans] which began in 1910) WAS NOT WRITTEN by Mexicans but by two Gringos and financed by Gringo money, in part by right-wing Catholic Gringo money.  Also the film is being released at exactly the time when the U.S. Catholic Hierarchy has been ramping-up for a suspiciously timed pre-election campaign on behalf of "Religious Liberty," the fight for religious liberty being precisely the overwhelming theme of the film.  I'm not saying that Catholic bishops finance movies, they don't.  But Catholic groups with some money, like Opus Dei which helped bankroll the movie (actually quite good) There Be Dragons [2011] last year about its founder, and the Knights of Columbus in part financing the current film, do.  But to be fully clear as well, the Knights funded this movie in good part because they had quite a few of their own Martyrs in Mexico during the Cristero Rebellion at the hands of the rabidly anti-clerical Mexican government of the time.  Still, honestly (from an American point of view) why this particular film and why now?

Then to an "non-Mexican outsider" like me (but due to my East European ancestry having some experience with sensing propaganda films), the film feels at first (and even second, third) glance ... unblushingly propagandistic.  Whether Andy Garcia (of Cuban descent) who plays the Mexican Cristero General Enrique Gorostieta Velarde [ESP] in the film realized it or not, his performance all but mimicked the portrayals by Mikaheil Gelovani [IMDb] of "great leader" Stalin [IMDb] in the Soviet films of his era.  Like Gelovani's Stalin, Garcia's Enrique Gorostieta was wise, measured, protected kids, and a fervent exponent of [fill-in the ideology] being espoused by the backers of the film, the ideology being espoused having little/no relation to the "great leader" archetype being played.  In the case of Stalin, the ideology being espoused (and utterly disconnected from his "great leader" persona) was radical egalitarianism through collectivization.  In the case of this film, the ideology espoused was  in the script's own words that of _absolute_ religious liberty, something that neither the Catholic Church nor the United States court system have ever actually defended. Otherwise child marriage/polygamy (Mormonism, Hinduism, Islam, and certain African Animist religions), ritual drug use (certain Native American religions and the Rastafarian religion) and even ritual prostitution (Isis/Ishtar/Aphrodite based religion) would have to be permitted.  However absolute religious liberty has become a cutting-edge slogan in some circles of the United States body-politic today.

Then the device of having a 10-12 year old kid named here "Jose" (played by Mauricio Kuri) first joining the cause and then bravely dieing for it, again mimics countless Soviet-era propaganda films where "little Sasha" either bravely "saved the Revolution" or bravely "died for it" (it didn't really matter which course of events occurred in any particular film because both versions of the device played out _repeatedly_ in Soviet era cinema).  Honestly, all that felt missing in the current film was a dog...

Further, the film-critics for both of Chicago's best known English language papers, Roger Ebert and Roger Moore, have also questioned the veracity of the battles portrayed, recalling perhaps that German Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in 1944 had diverted something like 100,000 sorely needed German soldiers to assist in the filming of the Nazi-era epic named "Kolberg" about a surprising Prussian victory against an invading Russian army during the era of Fredrick the Great.  By the time the film was released in the spring of 1945, the actual town of Kolberg had fallen to the Soviet Army in its inexorable march toward Berlin.  But no matter to Goebbels apparently: if the Nazis could not win the actual Second World War, they could win it metaphorically on the silver screen through this film.  (Goebbels killed himself a few months later along with his family in Hitler's bunker as the Soviets approached).

I mention Goebbel's "Kolberg" because one of the devices again used in For Greater Glory was a more or less obviously intended reversal of symbolism.  In the official and honestly _also_ propagandistic iconography of the Mexican Revolution [ESP, ENG-trans] (though at least chosen/enforced by Mexicans rather than Gringos ...) it was always the Sombrero wearing peasants led by Pancho Villa [ESP] or Emiliano Zapata [ESP] fighting the hated uniform-wearing "Federales" of the hated/despicable dictator Porfirio Diaz [ESP].  In this film, it was Enrique Gorostieta leading Sombrero wearing peasants fighting the hated uniformed "Federales" of the equally hated/despicable anti-clerical post-Mexican Revolution President Plutarco Elias Calles [ESP].

Added to the mix was the otherwise seemingly "throwaway line" in the film that General Gorostieta had "fought and defeated Zapata" and this being portrayed in the film as being some sort of a positive. In reality, Emiliano Zapata has been generally lionized in Mexico since the Revolution as an authentic hero and even a martyr to it, this to the point that in the 1990s an uprising in indigenous peasants in the Mexican state of Chiapas was led by a group calling itself the Zapatistas [ESP] harkening back to the legacy of Emiliano Zapata, the new/emerging "Zapatistas" being well received by the Mexican public.

Wonderful.  Films in general cost money and epic films with star-studded casts (Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria, Peter O'Toole, etc) cost even more.  So one could say that this film as intended for Anglo-American audiences was probably intended to be a gigantic and heavy-handed right-wing propaganda piece.

BUT ... How then has this film been taken in Mexico and by its people?   Here is where the emerging legacy of this film becomes FAR MORE INTERESTING: The film, which ACTUALLY OPENED IN MEXICO (before opening in the United States) has become something of a sensation there.  It has been critically well received in both the press in Mexico [1-ESP], [2 -ESP, ENG-Trans], [3-ESP, ENG-Trans] and in the Spanish language press in the United States [La Opinion-Los Angeles, ENG-Trans][Hoy-Chicago, ENG-Trans].

This is because, as both the Catholic Church in Mexico [ESP, ENG-Trans] and the Spanish language press in the United States [La Opinion-Los Angeles, ENG-Trans] have noted, though having been lived by presumably the vast majority of Mexico's population of the time, the Cristero Rebellion [ESP, ENG-trans] had been generally an "off limits" subject in Mexico until Pope John Paul II started beatifying some of the Martyrs of the Cristero Period (including Jose Sanchez del Rio on whom the child "Jose" of the film was based). 

So what may seem to a North American as a heavy-handed propaganda piece with suspicious motives, to Mexican audiences has become an opportunity for a Mexican "Glasnost" [ESP] or "Truth and Reconciliation."  I witnessed this myself in the theater where I saw the movie.  The audience was mostly Hispanic and presumably mostly Mexican.  At the end of the film, many of the audience members called out spontaneously and _quite sincerely_ "Viva Cristo Rey!"  Why would they do that?  Well, this was a story that they had heard from their parents and grandparents, really for generations, and it was _finally_ put on screen and shown to be largely true.

So whatever the motivations for the making of this film in the United States _at this time_ may have been (and I honestly do have my suspicions), when the film crosses cultures from an "Anglo" culture in the United States that (if one is honest) actually still largely _hates_ Mexico/Mexicans to a more Mexican / more Hispanic one, the film becomes a blessing and one that is making a lot of Mexican (and again more generally Hispanic) Catholics proud of their faith.

And as a Catholic priest who's worked for pretty much my whole ministerial priesthood in heavily Hispanic communities, how can I not be honestly happy for them?


In his  2012 pilgrimage to Mexico, Pope Benedict VI visited the giant Christ the King [ESP] memorial built in Guanajuato [Pictures on Flikr].  Scheduling a visit to relatives in Mexico to coincide with the Pope's visit, one of the women working at my current parish (Annunciata in Chicago) went to the Mass that he celebrated there.

While never visiting the memorial myself (it is high on top of a mountain top in Guanajuato a fair distance from the main highway), I passed it twice during various trips to the Servites in Mexico and I remember it to be quite impressive, visible for many miles in every direction.  And the passing of the monument always produced fascinating discussions with the Mexican Servites about life in the Cristero states like Michoacan, Zacatecas and Guanajuato during the Cristero era.

Additionally, Graham Greene wrote a famous novel, The Power and the Glory [1940] (which was made into a movie in 1961 starring Lawrence Olivier) set during the Cristero era.  The novel had its own problems -- the priest portrayed in the story wasn't a particularly morally upstanding one.  Still the story offered a classically Graham Greene-style reflection on Courage and God's mercy in face terrible persecution and up until the release of this current film, Greene's novel was probably the most famous English language portrayal of that era.

Finally, as long as I can remember (decades really) the Knights of Columbus have been keeping the memory of the Cristero martyrs alive.  The release of this film will certainly immortalize them.

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