REVIEW: Despite Cristero War Setting, For Greater Glory Could Use a Better Story
Although he converted to marry his devoutly Catholic wife in 1926, Graham Greene was famously called to the faith during his time in Mexico, where he exiled himself in 1938, after an over-stimulated review of a Shirley Temple movie threatened him with extradition to the United States on libel charges. It was in Mexico that Greene conceived the first novel in his “Catholic trilogy,” The Power and the Glory, about a priest on the run during the Cristero War.
The context of that war is laid out in reams of curly font at the beginning of For Greater Glory, and I guess I mention Graham Greene because the two hours of prancing melo-epic that follow those introductory paragraphs compare so poorly to the nuance and moral rigor of his masterpiece. To be fair, that’s probably a given – what I mean is that I began, not long after the opening credits, to long for an escape into a better story. I kept wanting to sneak Greene’s “whiskey priest” into the film’s turgid, sepia-toned landscapes and start following him through his purely fictional paces.
Where Greene’s hero was racked with doubt, there’s very little of that at the outset of For Greater Glory; the embalming agents of history will do that to a story. President Calles (Rubén Blades) informs the press that “Mexico is under siege,” and describes his campaign to rid the country of its overweening religious influences. Calles passed legislation that banned Catholic services, forbid priests and nuns from being seen in clerical garb, and severely restricted the rights of the faithful. Religion-neutral revolutionary war hero-turned-mogul General Gorostieta (Andy Garcia) addresses the concerns of his devout wife (Eva Longoria): “As an ex-military man I can tell you it’s only a matter of time until Calles is overthrown.” The rebels (including Catalina Sandino Moreno and Santiago Cabrera) amassing an underground alliance are as certain in their beliefs, and pledge a peaceful resistance. Young José (astonishing newcomer Mauricio Kuri) is chastised by his father (Nestor Carbonell) for taunting a priest (Peter O’Toole); the priest responds by making José an altar boy.
Soon after, O’Toole is martyred before his protégé’s eyes, galvanizing the boy’s faith where it might have been understandably thrown into chaos. The scene is shameless, the pair locking eyes and praying together at the moment of execution, and comes very early on. But For Greater Glory is just getting started, both with its jarring emotional pace and deliberate muddling of the issue of whether our heroes are fighting for their God or for a larger freedom of religious belief. Garcia’s General is positioned as the lightning rod for this question: When the Cristeros decide to fight back, they seek to recruit him as a leader, but the only glory the General is interested in has to do with medals and kill counts. Bored with his soap factory, Garcia squares his mercenary interest in the offer with the idea, as he later hisses to his old war buddy Calles, that the latter “declared war on freedom.” (Oh no he did not!)
But the General’s reluctant conversion – the result of the bond he develops with José, who joins the revolt – manages to sidestep the idea of a motivating ideology. Instead Glory relies more on sentiment for its climax, mixing in just enough piety to fully and finally confuse the film’s perspective. Michael Love’s script is full of beans and Catholic loopholes: In one scene a priest tells his men that they might fire bullets, but God decides where they land. In another he counsels that God doesn’t worry about those who kill a body, only those who kill a soul. There doesn’t seem to be any scrutinizing awareness surrounding these lines; certainly director (and effects maven) Dean Wright appears to rejoice in depicting the war’s violence, whether it’s the bodies swinging from telephone poles or the constant puh-pow, puh-pow, p-chew, p-chew of the shoot ‘em up scenes (though the renegade fighter played by Oscar Isaac has a welcome, snarling vitality).
There’s a moment, early on, when For Greater Glory fires up the viewer’s camp alert, specifically when Blades ends one of his diabolical, “let them eat dick” pronouncements – and the scene – by lazily spinning a globe with his index finger. Ultimately the movie has too much going on to be primarily a campy pleasure. Bruce Greenwood works his oaky inflections as the U.S. ambassador responsible for arming Calles’s men with advanced artillery in exchange for oil; several performers eke out genuinely moving moments. But there’s enough froth along the way to keep the memory of Will Ferrell’s recent Casa Di Me Padre close at hand. I’m still Catholic enough to feel guilty about that, especially given the closing-credits images of the actual subjects – martyrs all – and one actual, unidentified execution. I hereby sentence myself to a re-reading of The Power and the Glory as penance.