Judge Bill Gibron can't wait for the dramatization of the 1970s Cola Wars.
The True Story of…The Cristiada?
Do you remember the Cristeros War of 1926-29? The time when the Mexican Government, led by the uber-evil overlord President Plutarco Elías Calles (Rubén Blades, Color of Night), set about on a campaign to wipe the Catholic Church's influence out from under his disconcerted populace? You don't recall the rebel forces? The role played by the U.S. and its sitting leader Calvin Coolidge (Bruce McGill, Animal House)? The eventual martyrdom of over 90,000 citizens and soldiers? No? Really?
Well, don't worry. Unless you grew up South of the Border—and even then, the story has been sanitized and stifled to keep the powerful from looking like fools—you've probably never heard of this minor blip in world events, a historical anomaly that seems more geared toward rewarding the dearly departed with potential sainthood than actually dealing with the complicated political and social issues surrounding the crackdown ("war" is a much more effective term, dramatically speaking). It's clearly an incendiary and potentially powerful moment in time. Sadly, the film For Greater Glory can't begin to capture the truth. Instead, it's all empty spectacle and specious fictionalization.
Granted, there is nothing wrong with telling a story of religious persecution and the reaction to same from the viewpoint of those being victimized and not every horrific historical event requires necessary context (read: The Holocaust). There's no need to tell both sides with fairness and equity…unless, of course, you are preaching the newly converted. Few in the audience will understand the reasons behind Calles' cruelty, why he decided to target the Church in the first place, and why retired general Enrique Gorostieta Velarde (Andy Garcia, The Godfather: Part III), who had just settled down after a rough time with Zapata, would take up arms against the system he had just successful fought for. The devil is in the details with For Greater Glory, and Satan is as superficial as possible here. Granted, seeing the aged Peter O'Toole as a simple priest being placed before a firing squad may be enough to get your emotional dander up, but its manipulative, not meaningful. For his part, Garcia settles in with a bunch of Central Casting guerilla types, from angry altar boys (Mauricio Kuri) to the equally pissed men of the cloth (Santiago Cabrera, Merlin).
The problem here isn't the plot (as you can see, there's no reason to move beyond the "Calles attacks, Velarde responds" dynamic) or the characters. They are carved out of the standard epic elements. Of course we will see the innocent slaughtered, the guilty supported, and the eventual redemption/rejection of same. Naturally, villainy is painted in the broadest brushstrokes possible while goodness shines like a full moon on a clear, crisp Autumn night. No, the big issue here is one of approach. As with many movies that try to "humanize" history, focusing on Velarde, his devoted wife (Eva Longoria, looking lost), and the apparently personal nature of Calles' quest takes away all the necessary nuance from what has to be a more informative and policy-oriented look. This was a leader elected by the people, his positions all centering on the Church's undue influence in everyday life. Catholicism at the turn of the century was not the moral compass it appears to be today (no, that was not meant to be facetious) and there was corruption aplenty.
But first-time feature filmmaker Dean Wright (known for his F/X work on The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings movies) avoids all of this. Instead, it's brutal battles and sepia-toned slices of pointless exposition. The script, by Michael Love, might have been better had it been written by the famed Beach Boy, and not the man behind Gaby: A True Story. He's clearly done better before. As for the cast, they are names meant to earn financial backing and possible international distribution, not true character authenticity. Sure, Garcia is okay, by everyone else is either forgettable or flat and if the cast can't compel you to care, no matter how hard they try, it must be because they have so little to really work with. After sitting through For Greater Glory, the answer is obvious.
From a visual standpoint, the Blu-ray release from Arc Entertainment is excellent. Shot on film and transferred to digital, the 1080p, 2.39:1 image is sharp, clean, loaded with detail and filled with a kind of period-appropriate color scheme that's supposed to mimic the mid '20s. For the most part, cinematographer Eduardo Martínez Solares has nothing to be ashamed of. On the sound side, things are more or less the same. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix makes good use of the back channels for ambient elements, creating a nice sense of space and place. The score is served well, and the dialogue is always crystal clear and easy to understand. As for the added content, there's a selection of trailers and we are treated to a nearly 30-minute mini-documentary that tries to fill in the contextual gaps that much of the movie misses. For the most part, it succeeds.
Still, For Greater Glory just can't survive, either entertainment-wise or informatively, on its own. It needs a lot of help…help that history (or a lack thereof) fails to provide.
Guilty. A superficial overview of a significant event in Mexican history.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Arc Entertainment
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