[Review] – For Greater Glory

16 Jun

Title: For Greater Glory
Year: 2012
Director: Dean Wright
Writer: Michael Love
Starring: Andy Garcia, Oscar Isaac, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Santiago Cabrera, Eva Longoria, Peter O’Toole, Eduardo Verástegui, Rubén Blades, Nestor Carbonell, Bruce Greenwood
MPAA Rating: R, war violence and some disturbing images
Runtime: 143 min
IMDb Rating: 6.4
Rotten Tomatoes: 17%
Metacritic: 35

It’s hard not to appreciate the ambition in For Greater Glory, the directorial debut of Dean Wright, an Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor, and the guy responsible for the visual magic in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s a movie based on a the true story of the Cristero War at the end of the 1920’s, a rebellion of the Mexican people, risking it all to fight its own government because of its persecution of Catholics.

That’s a really historically important and narratively epic story to tackle, especially for a first go-round as a director for Mr. Wright, and I do indeed praise the fact that they even chose to have a go at this story. But the fact is that you need so many things to go right in order to tell this story properly. It’s awesome that the film committed to that 143-minute running time, because you need a long movie like that to tell a story as rich as this, but those extra minutes here are used to bloat this one up with stuff it doesn’t really need at all, instead of actually giving us a richer understanding of the historical value of all of this, which it really doesn’t delve into as much as it should, and instead of giving us fully-formed characters, instead settling on characters that are far too flimsily written to be really able to carry a film of epic proportions like this one.

You see, the constitution that was enabled after the Mexican Revolution took a lot of the church’s power away, as well as many of the physical domains it possessed. That constitution wasn’t really enforced with that much force by the government until about a decade after it was applied, during the regime of President Calles, played by salsa singer Rubén Blades in this film. So the sympathizers of the Catholic Church, who called themselves Cristeros, got General Enrique Gorostieta to lead their forces against the federal troops to defend what they believed in and get the liberty of religion back.

Look, this war is actually a pretty big deal that, for some reason, hasn’t really gotten its due in the annals of history. It lasted for three years and the number of lives it took comes near the six digits, and a few of those were later canonized by Pope John Paul II. So yes, I was thinking that this was prime material for a really good movie, really, a story that’s truly important and that just hasn’t been explored nearly as much as it should. This is one of those moments in history that for some reason people don’t really know about, and a big-scale movie like this one, the most expensive one ever made in Mexico, would be a great way to shine a light on it. But then For Greater Glory doesn’t really come close to making it really work.

What happens is that, even though this movie is really well-made, and impressive in its scale, it doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity a story like this presented. You will definitely learn a lot about the war in For Greater Glory, and I liked the fact that it took some time to acknowledge the political background to the religious story, but I think this film suffers from the fact that it was made to present a message of faith, as it becomes too engaged in its pro-Catholicism for it to present a really accurate representation of the events. It’s just full of characters that are too black-and-white, they’re either the horrible villains or the saintly people we have to root for, and you just know it wasn’t as uncomplicated as that, which is why this film seems like it was made to be projected by a church group on Sundays or something more than it was to tell a real story as it really happened.

Andy Garcia is actually pretty good as Gorostieta, the atheist who’s in favor of religious freedom and who’s an ex General and a superb military tactician, hired to organize the Catholic initiative. He has an emotional connection to religion though, with his wife, played by Eva Longoria, being super religious, and because of his bond with José, the young man who Gorostieta sees as a son, a man who witnessed the death of Father Christopher, his other father figure, played by Peter O’Toole, and who later on was executed himself, and was one of those who was canonized years later. That’s the event that you see makes Gorostieta kind of start becoming a bit of a Catholic himself in a way, because of his great attachment to José.

The thing is that there just isn’t enough in this film to be considered decent. I mean, even if you take away the fact that it’s far too pro-Catholicism, there are other holes in it that are far too big to ignore. Like I said, the characters seem to be too thinly written, which is because the film starts introducing storylines for a bunch of secondary characters that it starts focussing on at the expense of us potentially getting to know Gorostieta or José better. It seems that, even though this film was indeed intended to be a historic epic, it also wanted to be an incessantly melodramatic action tale with lots of violence, and it doesn’t work as a combination of both.

I wanted much more from the movie. I respect that fact that it’s undeniably well-made, and technically it’s a decent directing debut for Mr. Wright, and you can tell it was made with much love. But the fact remains that it was a bit too single-minded in what it wanted to represent, and because of that it didn’t really offer up any kind of moral complexity which certainly would have elevated the film for me, and which was certainly present in the real-life story it’s tell. And you just know it’s a problem when a real-life story starts feeling more and more like a typical work of fiction. An admirable work, for sure, but one that ultimately just falls flat.

Grade: C

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