Some movies reach for the stars but fall short. But even in falling short, because they reached so high, it raises them above the fold. Such is the case with For Greater Glory.
The movie tells the story of the Cristada Revolution in early 20th Century Mexico. President Calles began a persecution of the Church that began with erosion of religious freedom. Catholics were told to compromise their faith and bend to the power of the federal government. Those who stood in the way were met with swift judgment. So many became revolutionaries who went to battle with the cry “Vive Cristo Rey!” meaning “Long Live Christ the King!”
The first thing that you should know is that this is not a war movie. Yes, it takes place during a war and yes, there are battles. But the battles are not major set pieces. They are incidental to telling the human struggle. This movie has less in common with Braveheart as it does with last year's There Be Dragons and decades earlier, The Mission.
The movie is told from the perspective of 6 different people:
- Joselita, a young boy who witnesses the murder of a priest (Peter O'Toole in a marvelously vulnerable role) and becomes determined to fight the Federales
- General Enrique Vilarde, played by the terrific Andy Garcia, is an atheist retired general whom the Catholic rebels hire as their mercenary commander-in-chief
- Fr. Vega, a young priest who picks up the rifle and is made a passionate, but flawed, general.
- Victoriano or “El Catorce," as the badass pisterlero who won't back down from a fight.
- Adriana and her husband, Blessed Ancleto, who run the communications network for the resistance
- Ambassador Morrow, played by Bruce Greenwood, who is sent by President Coolidge to secure America's interest no matter what.
Herein lies the biggest flaw of the movie. In the film Braveheart, the story was clearly about William Wallace's war on England. All the parts of the story related back to Wallace, including the subplot about Princess Isabelle's unhappy marriage. But For Greater Glory is not about a man, but a movement. The writer wants to show the many facets of the war effort. But instead of creating a rich tapestry, the movie feels episodic. We don't get as much of a chance to connect to the characters and their relationships because they spend the first half of the movie finding their way to each other. The movie would have been much more effective if it had focused on 2 characters: Vilarde as the main character and his struggle between his atheism and his consciences and Joselita as the boy who is thrust in the violent world of war. This through-line would have made the message more powerful.
Speaking of which, there is always a problem with message movies, and For Greater Glory is no exception. Stories are meant primarily to transport you to another world, not to preach to you. Many Christian movies have this problem because they cannot resist hitting the nail on the head so hard that it takes you out of the movie and you realize that you just heard a sermon. This is not just true of Christian films, but any film that tries to teach something before it tries to entertain. CS Lewis once said that if he had written The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a way to tell the story of Jesus in Animal Land, it would have failed. Instead, he tried to write a story that would enrapture, and then the themes naturally presented themselves For Greater Glory is not nearly as preachy as it could have been, but it falls into the trap too often.
Having said all of that, the movie does an excellent job of presenting to your mind and heart the theme in all of its glory: Do I follow God or Man? Do I follow Freedom or Tyranny? It makes the dilemma concrete and tangible. The historical context, so close to us in geography and time, places you in the characters shoes. If I had to choose between my life or compromising my Catholic identity, how would I choose? What price would I pay?
Joselita's trials are the strongest part of the movie, where the director trusts in his visuals and lets us experience his sufferings first hand. But Andy Garcia's performance deserves special praise. Through most of the movie, he plays it very stoic. We can see the ethical dilemma beneath his eyes, but as a disciplined military man, he never breaks form. We catch little looks and eye roles as his allies shout religious platitudes to which he cannot honestly accept. And when he does speak about God being on their side, you can hear how he is forcing himself to say what the soldiers want to hear. But then when a great personal calamity hits him, that veneer is stripped away and the pain he shows is so much sharper because of the hardness of the shell that has just cracked. And in that brokenness of heart, grace has an opportunity to enter.
This is one of the most unapologetically Catholic movies I have seen in a while, both in tone and dialogue. And yet it is comfortable enough with itself to give the atheist some of the best zingers. When told to confess his sins, General Vilarde says, “Doesn't [God] already know?” This is not a man who will be won over by clever arguments. He has to experience the cross in order to be set free. We also experience the Passion that the Cristados endured to keep their religious freedom. During the end credits we see actual photos of the men and women who fought and died for that freedom. Seeing them on screen like that filled me with sadness and pride. They may have been humiliated on earth, but they have received the Greater Glory.
Vive Cristo Rey!
3.5 out of 5 stars