For Greater Glory is a re-telling of the impressive story of the Cristeros, Mexican freedom fighters who fought for the freedom to practice their Catholic Faith during the period after the Mexican Revolution (1926-1928). For those who are not familiar with the true-life stories that are included in the film, this review will be a bit more general in the hope of avoiding spoilers.
The filmmakers obviously have a profound understanding of Catholic spirituality, morality, and teaching, as these are all convincingly and naturally reflected in the film. For a Catholic, it’s a rare but heartening experience to see one’s Catholic worldview reflected so naturally and accurately in a film. For Greater Glory is a well-made, well-casted, well-acted, and beautifully lensed film. (In particular, the performances of Peter O’Toole, Andy Garcia, Oscar Isaac, and the luminous Mauricio Kuri, are a joy to watch.) The film follows several storylines to give the audience an understanding of the wide composition of the people who became Cristeros–not just soldiers and ranchers, but also ordinary people who took up arms, and the women who provided nursing care and supplies–including ammunition. Even priests became involved in the war effort, and the actions of one priest who chooses to fight provides us as the audience with the opportunity to mull over the role of the priest in the community. The Cristeros risked their lives to fight for the right to worship Christ freely. And the filmmakers chose well which figures to represent the fervor, conflicts, suffering, and heroism of the people who stood up for what they believed in, in many cases to the point of martyrdom.
Yet, trying to tell a range of stories in one film is difficult to do. The film wanders in places and the stories are unevenly told. One story is so compelling that it outshines the others. This one character and storyline make the entire film worth watching, but in comparison, the rest of the film can seem a bit flat.
The violent nature of some scenes of the film restrict the audience of For Greater Glory to mature adults: there are scenes of battle, cruel executions of noncombatants, and torture. However, the violence is never sensationalized or glorified, and it is true to the actual events that happened. Its portrayal is necessary to understand the reactions of the pacifists, some of whom eventually take up arms to defend the rights of the Church. The way the violence towards religious figures and symbols is portrayed is clearly respectful of the faith that they represent.
Window to the Soul?
It’s not easy to capture or point to transcendence in film–many movies end up simply being “preachy.” But For Greater Glory begins and ends with moments which hint at or actually bring the audience to a moment of transcendent clarity: about the true purpose of life, about the greatness of God, about the nobility of laying down one’s life for Christ.
The movie loses some opportunities to explore more deeply some themes such as the mystery of faith, the problem of evil and human suffering, and the morality of using violence to defend one’s faith. Nevertheless, for Catholics today who must struggle for the right to witness to faith in a public arena, For Greater Glory is particularly relevant and thought-provoking. Even though this film may not be of the highest artistic merit, I highly recommend For Greater Glory for the witness that it offers us today, and for seeking to re-tell an important part of our Catholic history in North America.
For those who are interested, themes included in the film are:
- Witness to Christ
- Social justice
- Use of violence to defend religious freedom
- Faith (and the journey of coming to faith)
- Religion in the public arena
- Prayer & spirituality
- Role of the priest in society and in the Church