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June 13, 2012Lloyd Billingsley
Photo: The body of Christeros General Enrique Gorostieta, who addressed issues of dignity and religious freedom.
Mexico has always been a thoroughly Catholic country but Mexico’s 1917 constitution contained articles opposed to religious education, monastic orders, outdoor worship, and the church’s right to own property and criticize public officials. Presidents Carranza and Obregon neglected these laws but president Plutarco Elias Calles (1924-28) deployed them, and other measures, against a church he believed was part of a foreign plot to control Mexico and bring down his government.
The repressions touched off an armed rebellion of Mexican Catholics from all strata of society. They called themselves “Cristeros” and their uprising is the story of For Greater Glory. The film breaks new ground in its treatment of religious liberty and its relation to democracy.
The “Calles law” punishes priests for wearing vestments in public, imprisons priests for criticizing the government, deports foreign-born priests, and places churches under government control. The National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty (LNDLR) responds with peaceful petitions, protests, and then a boycott. Calles then unleashes federal troops against the churches. For Greater Glory shows this persecution in considerable detail but the portrayal is not gratuitous.
“There is no greater glory than to give your life for Christ,” says Father Christopher, played by Peter O’Toole. He is duly executed by federal troops, witnessed by altar boy Jose Sanchez del Rio, who proves that, as the Bible says, “a man’s enemies shall be those of his own household.”
Mexican federal troops raid towns slaughtering civilians and hanging them from telegraph poles. A rag-tag guerilla army of ranchers and peasants rises up against the federales, led by a priest and supported by the LNDLR and its clandestine network.
With no formal military training the Cristeros did in fact defeat federal troops in several battles, prompting further repressions from the Calles government. State troops forced captured Cristeros to say “Long live the federal government.” But they go to their deaths shouting “Viva Cristo Rey,” their battle cry.
Guerilla war is always a bloody business and here the film is not black and white. Indeed, it shows the Cristeros burning a train, with civilians still inside. This atrocity hurts their cause, says Enrique Gorostieta, (Andy Garcia) the agnostic liberal and boastful ex-general the Cristeros hire to unify their forces.
Gorostieta inspires the troops with speeches about dignity and religious freedom, even as he grapples with questions of faith, the problem of evil, and the contradictions of priests taking up arms against the state. Historians will doubtless squabble over some of the details but on these difficult questions For Greater Glory is both balanced and nuanced, rare qualities for a commercial film.
Gorostieta was betrayed by a spy in the Cristero ranks and federal troops gun him down, but the cause was not lost. The Mexican government, the Vatican and the United States worked out an agreement and by 1929 the fighting ceased and the church bells were ringing again. So this epic story has a happy ending of sorts but one doubts the settlement would have happened without the Cristero rebellion.
Plutarco Calles proved that elected governments can also be repressive, and he learned the hard way that the church is an anvil that has worn out many hammers. Mexican Christians recognized that freedom is not free, and that, as Father Christopher said, you have to stand up for what you believe.
For Greater Glory may make a profit and win some awards but its greatest achievement could be to make the commercial cinema safe for religious liberty. Filmmakers can now feel free to show persecution of religious believers in Cuba, the USSR, Hungary, Albania, China, Cambodia and other nations. If they have the flair and verisimilitude of For Greater Glory, films on this theme could help expand religious liberty and support democracy, where such liberty functions best.
Cuba would be a good place to start because it is not a democracy and curtails all liberty, religious and political. Further, unlike the Mexican religious freedom League, some American religious bodies defend the communist Cuban government and even supported the deportation of Elian Gonzalez, six years old, back to that repressive regime.
Andy Garcia hails from Cuba and that is doubtless part of the reason he took the liberating Gorostieta role in For Greater Glory. In For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story (2000) Garcia played trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, imprisoned by Fidel Castro for playing jazz, which the Cuban dictator called the music of American imperialism.
Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party and From Mainline to Sideline.
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