Disclaimer: This review is intended for entertainment purposes only. For Greater Glory is a work of historical fiction based on events that have great cultural and religious significance, and this review is a critique of that film, not a commentary on the events themselves or an attack on Catholicism.
A bit of background: In 1926, the Mexican government passed a law that banned the free practice of religion, specifically the Catholic Mass and the wearing of priest habits in public. It was the belief of the Mexican President Calles (Ruben Blades) that religion was harming the country, so he did what he could to stamp it out. To their credit, the oppressed Catholics began to retaliate by protesting peacefully and starting a boycott and petition, as well as continuing to hold Mass. The Mexican government then turned violent, killing and arresting openly devout Catholics and exiling priests and bishops. Eventually, a rebellion formed, striking against the government using guerilla tactics, though occasionally failing due to the might of the Mexican army.
In For Greater Glory, the decision is made to hire seasoned war veteran General Enrique Gorostieta Velarde (Andy Garcia) to lead the rebellion. Gorostieta, however, is an agnostic and decides to lead because he believes in freedom of religion. This agnosticism, as well as war tact, leads him to clash with the cocky warrior Victoriano “El Catorce” Velarde (Oscar Isaac) and the priest-turned-soldier Father Vega (Santiago Cabrera), though Gotostieta develops a close relationship with young Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio (Mauricio Kuri), who wants to fight for the rebellion knows as the Cristeros.
It then promptly extends its middle finger to the Cristeros with this poster.
Andy Garcia shines as Gorostieta. He’s an outstanding actor, and he anchors and saves the film, giving the general the fiery passion that the film wants so desperately for him to own. The other impressive acting talent is young Mauricio Kuri, delivering a great and, dare I say it, rather touching performance. A major scene with Kuri was the only scene in the film in which I felt any sort of emotional connection to the characters, and a pivotal moment with him would make any religious individual proud, and perhaps make them think.
Additionally, the filmmakers do a halfway decent job at making the Catholics’ struggle relevant without making it campy (when they’re not making the Catholics’ struggle irrelevant by making it campy, that is), and there are interesting moments in the film where they really nailed the importance of the conflict and the dedication of the central characters. Some of the characters go through real transformations and solid developments, and it strengthened the film in areas where it was needed.
Sadly, the rest of the cast and script are abysmal. Leading the charge is Eva Longoria as Gorostieta’s wife. So dreadful in her performance that it almost defies belief. She is the embodiment of every female in every Hollywoodepic from the 30s and 40s, and I will admit that I giggled at some of her early drama scenes. As good as Andy Garcia and Oscar Isaac are, they are lost in the terrible script, which feels like a mishmash of historical quotes cherry-picked from the source material, Braveheart-wannabe war rabble, and absolutely random nonsense. Gorostieta is the primary offender, spouting little nuggets of dialogue that feel as though the screenwriter was penning the script and suddenly decided to borrow a quote from his daily inspirational calendar. The script itself makes pretty astounding leaps as well—it takes Gorostieta two scenes to tell Kuri he would want his son to be like him, and a scant few later to sob and refer to the captured Kuri as his boy. The role is further soured by some quick research into the real General Gorostieta, who was hardly the saintly hero the film makes him out to be.
Maybe I shouldn’t be complaining though, because at two and a half hours with almost a dozen main characters, For Greater Glory is an amazingly hefty film that jumps between subplots with frustrating haste. I was frequently surprised that Soldier A was still alive, until I realized that he simply styled his facial hair identically and wore his same clothes as Soldier B that had died earlier. I know they’re fighting a war, but does every character have to look the damn same? If I remember correctly, nearly every single one of the characters in this convoluted movie has a huge-ass mustache except for Eva Longoria, but hey, why not her too?
Look, I don’t know why this exists either, but it was 5 in the morning so shut up.
Remember those classic epic films like The Robe and Gone With the Wind? Do you recall the thrilling Spaghetti Westerns starring Clint Eastwood as The Man with No Name? How about the exciting and emotional Civil War flick Glory? Few can argue that those films are excellent…on their own. Now imagine all of those films thrown into a pile and mashed together into a messy, convoluted disaster. For Greater Glory doesn’t know whether it wants to be an old-school Hollywoodepic or a sincere religious melodrama, so it floors the pedal on both, escalating almost to the point of self-parody. The presence of a skeletal-looking Peter O’Toole as a kindly priest in the first act almost feels like a feeble attempt to emulate that bygone cinematic style.
Eventually, the Hollywoodepic wins over, and the religious melodrama is shoved roughly to the side to make way for DRAMA! EMOTION! ROMANCE! ACTION! It’s absurd, and it absolutely kills the movie, ruining any chance at actually being a landmark tale of freedom and instead turning into a half-baked war flick. What’s more, the religious angle is largely swept away in favor of portraying the main character’s own religious transformation and spiritual journey, which, in trueHollywoodfashion, occurs just in the nick of time, and aided by an orchestra that feels ten thousand strong.
James Horner overindulges in his score to a point where it becomes ludicrous; for every scene in which something “dramatic” happens, the music screams out of the gate as if to wave its arms and cry “NOTICE ME!!!” Tidal waves of surging horns and violins, rolling over each other and over the theater, cram emotion down the collective throat of an audience that has since been beaten into exhaustion, because this ridiculous swell of music happens approximately every ten minutes. It occurs so frequently and predictably you could almost make a drinking game out of it. Wink, wink.
DAAA NANANA NA NA…LLLLAAAAAAAAAAA
The movie gets points for trying to be powerful, but another beer for falling flat on its face nearly every time. For Greater Glory is one of the least subtle movies I’ve seen in a long, long time, careening out of control as it recklessly fishes for emotion. The final shots are so obviously manufactured to elicit an emotional response, I had to make an effort to not emit an audible scoff of disgust. The characters are all painted in remarkably broad strokes: from the agnostic, yet unswervingly noble and heroic Gorostieta (who, at the same time, weirdly waffles between scoffing at God’s existence and proclaiming how only God can influence the war) to the cold, sinister President Calles, to the strongly caricatured “El Catorce” Ramirez (emulating a Clint Eastwood character so strongly it’s laughable), and of course to Calles’ personal torturer, who saunters around so dramatically, he might as well be cackling and twirling his massive mustache like some 1920s Snidely Whiplash ancestor. The lines between good and evil are as thick as can be here—there’s no doubt that the Catholics are the heroes of good, and almost the entirety of the Mexican army is evil enough to make Hitler blush.
Instead of a picture of Hitler blushing, instead here is a lovely bouquet. I love you.
So I said the film does a halfway decent job of portraying the Catholics in their fight for religious freedom. For the other half, the film commits its gravest mistake by sensationalizing the battles with explosions and slow-motion, as well as featuring a wise-cracking priest whose own kill tally rivals that of his peers. Like the General, this priest also changes his tone several times throughout the film. Federales shoot up churches and hang priests and children alike, and soldiers from both sides of the conflict hang each other. Come to think of it, there is a heck of a lot of hangings in the movie: a frequently-recycled image is that of men hanged from telephone poles—that is, every single telephone pole lining the train track like a grotesque decoration. Robert Rodriguez is furious that someone else thought of it first. An Internet search actually confirms that bodies were, in fact, publicly hanged from telephone poles, but the problem is the film’s incessant desire to repeatedly return to the image.
Perhaps the hardest thing to watch in the film was the torture of a young child who is forced to drag his bloody body through the streets to the top of a hill, where he is both stabbed and shot, in what appears to be a fairly forced Christ allegory. Another critic brought up the interesting point questioning the necessity of including a religious allegory in a religious epic. Even so, this is the aforementioned solitary scene that had any sort of emotional resonance with me, but it’s also ruined by the graphic violence and the presence of Federale Whiplash.
In essence, For Greater Glory is a shining example of having one’s cake, and eating it too (and I have now fulfilled my life goal of using that idiom in a review). It is the ultimate contradiction, rightfully asking that we treat a major cultural event with reverence and respect and then refusing to do so itself, turning the legendary story of the Cristeros into a ridiculously overblown dramatic epic that trips over its own feet in its attempts to appeal to a mainstream audience. There has already been controversy over the poor reviews for the film, but it’s not because of prejudice against the Cristeros. It’s because this movie about them just plain sucks. Such an important event in Catholic and Mexican history deserves a better treatment than this campy bore.
Also, don’t Google “blushing Hitler”. It’s scary.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever the music swells dramatically (don’t act like you’re surprised this is one of them)
Take a Drink: whenever Andy Garcia randomly says something dramatically
Take a Drink: whenever you have to strain dramatically to remember which character is which
Do a Shot: every time something happens dramatically that seems contradictory to religion
Chug Your Beer Dramatically: at the dramatic part toward the end when a specific dramatic thing (you’ll know it when you see it) happens so dramatically, you involuntarily roll your eyes dramatically. And when I say “chug your beer dramatically”, I mean go to town on that sucker. Tell it that you frankly don’t give a damn, but here’s looking at you, kid, and pour it down your throat and make David Lean proud, rest his soul.