Andy Garcia, the Cuban America actor who stars Dean Wright’s and Michael Love’s film about the Mexican Cristero Wars, is probably still known best for his role in the The Untouchables.
In The Untouchables, the classic 1980s, prohibition-era gangster epic, director Brian De Palma sets up a clear moral distinction. Having a personality makes you evil. Kevin Costner, a WASP who can’t act, plays Eliot Ness. Robert De Niro, an Italian who can act, plays Al Capone. We know Ness is good because he’s a block of wood. We know Capone is bad because he’s just so much fucking fun to watch. Andy Garcia, who plays Stone, the film’s token “good” Italian, is somewhere in the middle. Garcia, unlike Kostner, is a competent actor. But he’s no Robert De Niro. In For Greater Glory, or Cristiada to use its original title, Garcia plays Enrique Gorostieta, a veteran Mexican military officer who throws in his lot with the right-wing, Catholic rebellion against the leftist Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles. He’s competent, but he’s still no Robert De Niro.
The religious history of Mexico follows the French model of religious conflict and polarization much more closely than it follows the American model of religious pluralism. The ruling class in Mexico has always been closely allied with the Catholic church, and the left in Mexico, unlike the left in the United States, has usually been anti-clerical. In 1917, after the Mexican Revolution, the Mexican government adopted a Constitution which put severe restrictions on the Catholic Church. In 1926, President Calles, decided to enforce those restrictions. Under the “Calles Laws,” according to Wikipedia, “wearing clerical garb in public (i.e., outside Church buildings) earned a fine of 500 pesos (approximately $250 US at the time); a priest who criticized the government could be imprisoned for five years. Chihuahua enacted a law permitting only a single priest to serve the entire Catholic congregation of the state. Calles seized church property, expelled all foreign priests, and closed the monasteries, convents and religious schools.”
For Greater Glory, a big budget, English language production partly funded by the Knights of Columbus, is an openly right-wing, openly pro-Catholic movie that glorifies the first peaceful, then armed rebellion against the Calles Laws. This is not The Chouans, Balzac’s great novel about the Vendee, which sees both the Catholic right and the Jacobin left in equal, morally ambiguous terms. Here the Cristeros, the right wing Mexican counterrevolutionaries, are good. The Calles government is pure evil. Cristiada could have sprung fully made right from the mind of Pope Benedict (who beatified 13 Cristero martyrs back in 2005) himself. But a reactionary agenda is not what makes For Greater Glory a failure as drama, and what made it a failure at the box office. It’s just not good propaganda.
For Greater Glory is no more a “bad” movie than Andy Garcia is a “bad” actor. The problem is that, like Garcia, it’s merely competent, and mere competence rarely succeeds as propaganda. What’s more, it’s not entirely clear who the film is aimed at, and why the Vatican let it fail. Make no mistake, bad films can be marketed. The Passion of the Christ, a mediocre film at best, was so popular back in 2004 that even I, a leftist and an atheist, felt vaguely guilty about not seeing it sooner than I did. But The Passion of the Christ had a very clear audience in mind, American evangelicals. Who is supposed to watch For Greater Glory? It’s an English, not a Spanish language film. Very few people in the United States know anything about Mexican history. Plenty of Mexicans, both in the United States and in Mexico, speak English, but Mexico is still a Spanish language, not an English language market. What’s more, any Mexican who knows the history of the Cristero Wars is probably going to find it one dimensional, wooden, and uninteresting. My guess is that For Greater Glory is supposed to appeal to conservative Hispanics in the United States. I would also guess it failed partly because of the xenophobia in the Republican party and partly because conservative Benedict was replaced by the more moderate Francis.
Mostly, For Greater Glory fails because it has a bad script. Make no mistake, Dean Wright, who did much of the cinematography for the Lord of the Rings movies, knows something about lighting and design. The film looks great. That 12 million dollar budget also let them hire enough good actors so that none of the performances are flat out embarrassing. But the writing, the overly complex, confusing plot, is terrible. We begin with President Calles, Ruben Blades, giving a speech about the Mexican Revolution being encircled by reactionary foreign powers, and subverted from within by foreign interests. In his characterization of Calles, screenwriter Michael Love makes a very basic mistake. He doesn’t give the devil his due. If William Blake was right, and the true poet is on the side of the devil without knowing it, Love is no true poet. He’s not even a good documentarian. For Greater Glory is two and a half hours long, but we never really learn why Calles is so determined to suppress the Catholic Church. We learn nothing about the church’s ties to the big landowners. We learn nothing about the long tradition of Mexican, liberal anti-clericalism. We learn nothing about the historical context, about Franco, Mussolini, or the Soviet Union, and the Vatican’s tilt towards anti-communism and the far right. We learn nothing about the failure of Pancho Villa, and Emiliano Zapata, or about the Mexican poor.
Indeed, For Greater Glory may be set in Mexico in the aftermath of a traumatic decade of revolution and civil war, but there don’t seem to be very many poor people, and certainly not among the Cristeros. Indeed, except for Peter O’Toole, who plays an elderly priest who looks so ghoulishly old and sickly that it’s almost a relief when the Federales line him up against the wall and have him shot, there are no unattractive people either. Andy Garcia, as Enrique Gorostieta, is puffy and middle-aged, but he’s still Andy Garcia. Oscar Isaac, who we last saw as Llewyn Davis, is Victoriano “El Catorce” Ramírez, a badass outlaw who got his nickname after he killed fourteen Federales who came to arrest him. Isaac, in spite of some fake looking bad teeth, is much hunkier than he was in Llewyn Davis. So that’s why Cary Mulligan slept with him, we think. Eduardo Verástegui who plays Anacleto González Flores, one of the martyrs later beatified by Pope Benedict, is an actual male model. Eva Longaria plays Gorostieta’s wife. The fact that she’s devout doesn’t mean she’s not also hot, and she’s not even the prettiest actress in the cast. That honor would go to Catalina Sandino Moreno, who plays a leader in the Joan of Arc Brigades, women who ran guns to the Catholic rebels. This is nothing if not a good looking cast.
But good looking people don’t make revolutions on the basis of their looks. Why were the Cristeros able to cause so much trouble for the Calles government that they later had to bring in the American ambassador Dwight Morrow to broker a deal? We’re told that Gorostieta is a military genius but there’s little evidence of it here. He’s killed in an ambush because he apparently forgot to set up a defense perimeter around the strongly fortified town he’s using as a headquarters. No military genius gets caught so completely off guard. Who are the Cristeros’ “base?” Peasants who are clinging to their religion and their traditional Catholic ways? That could be, but there’s little evidence they even exist. In fact, the only brown skinned, mixed race Mexicans we see here wear Federale uniforms and fight for Calles. Brown skinned peasants who fight for the big bad government against a white skinned elite who fight for religious “liberty?” That might appeal to a teabagger audience in the United States but it does little to throw any light on the history of the Cristero War.
Just about the only character in For Greater Glory who might represent the Cristero base of support is José Sánchez del Río, a 14-year old boy who dies under torture because he refuses to renounce his faith and say “long live the federal government.” We first see José Sánchez del Río, canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000, when he plays a prank on Father Christopher, the corpse like Peter O’Toole. Why exactly is Peter O’Toole playing Father Christopher, who, in real life was a mixed race Mexican named Cristóbal Magallanes Jara, and who was only 57 when he died? What is this zombie albino doing in Mexico? Indeed,O’Toole looks so much like a melanin free, blue eyed, white skinned devil badly in need of a visit from Doctor Kevorkian that the only thing we feel like doing is shouting out “run little boy. Run. It’s a pedophile priest.” But Jose doesn’t run. Instead he witnesses Father Christopher’s execution, goes from normal 14-year-old boy to potential saint, runs away to join the Cristeros, gets adopted by Gorostieta as a sort of surrogate son, gets taken prisoner, and dies under torture.
Jose’s death, in turn, saves Gorostieta’s soul. Gorostieta begins the film as a sceptic, a mercenary who joins the Cristeros for the money, but he’s so touched by the idea of a young boy dying for his faith, that it brings him to the faith. He dies at the end of the film shouting Vive Cristo Rey, yet another martyr. The problem is that while the scenes where Jose is tortured are effective, they are also undercut by the way the torturers are so utterly depraved and sadistic that they come off like cartoon characters. Normal people committing acts of torture are terrifying. Cartoon characters are just that, cartoon characters, and these not even good cartoon characters. Never have torturers and sadists seemed so dull. Try to imagine Kevin Costner in The Untouchables playing Al Capone, and you’ll get an idea of what I mean.
Indeed, therein lies the problem. For Greater Glory has Andy Garcia. It has plenty of Hispanic Kevin Kostners, but no Robert De Niro. It trips over its own conservatism. At least Brian De Palma, whatever else you want to say about him, knew how to give the devil his due.