When the Catholic Faith Was Outlawed

For Greater Glory offers a compelling depiction of a dark period of Mexican history.

After decades of seeing their Church maligned in cinema, Catholic moviegoers have enjoyed a smattering of pro-Catholic movies in recent years. The latest of these, For Greater Glory starring Andy Garcia, will be released in the United States on June 1. The movie tells the story of the Cristero War in Mexico (1926-29), a peasant uprising against the stridently anti-Catholic policies of the Mexican government under President Plutarco Elias Calles. Garcia portrays General Enrique Gorostieta, a retired federal general hired by the Cristeros to be their leader. 

“It’s a fascinating story, and one I previously didn’t know anything about,” Garcia said about the Cristero uprising.

The war erupted in 1926, after Calles implemented the “Law for Reforming the Penal Code” or “Calles’ Law,” which severely restricted the free practice of religion in Mexico. Among other regulations, the law levied a 500-peso fine (nearly $5,000 in the U.S. today) on priests or religious wearing clerical garb in public, and clerics who spoke out against the government could be jailed for five years.

The Mexican bishops suspended public religious services in response to the law, and supported an economic boycott against the government. Violence soon erupted, as bands of Catholic peasants battled federal forces. Priests were shot and hung, Church property seized, and many religious institutions closed. Ninety thousand would die over the next three years. The Cristeros’ battle cry was, “Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”).

For Greater Glory was filmed in seven different states in Mexico, with a Mexican crew and an international cast. It had a budget of $11 million—modest by Hollywood standards, but a significant sum in Mexican filmmaking—and was a hit when it was released with Spanish subtitles in Mexico, Garcia said.

Garcia was raised Catholic, but is circumspect about sharing his religious beliefs today. For him, the movie is about “a loss of freedom,” something he experienced in his own life. Born in Havana, Cuba in 1956, Garcia fled to Miami with his family when the Castro regime came to power. 

“Our cause was the same as the Cristeros’,” Garcia said. “We saw our freedoms taken away.”

In the movie, Garcia’s character has left the military and operates a soap-making factory. He watches with disapproval as Calles, ably portrayed by Ruben Blades, cracks down on the Church.  Unlike his wife, played by Eva Longoria, Gorostieta is not an active Catholic, but does believe men should be free to practice their religion of choice. The Cristeros come to him to ask him to be their leader, and the promise of money and glory persuade Gorostieta to accept.

Gorostieta’s challenge is to unite the various factions of the Cristeros. These include ones led by Father Reyes Vega, played by Santiago Cabrera, and Victoriano “El Catorce” Ramirez, played by Oscar Isaacs.  The real-life El Catorce earned his nickname after an escape from prison; he is said to have single-handedly killed the 14-member posse sent to apprehend him.

As Gorostieta takes command and trains the rebels, he begins to admire their faith and devotion to their cause. Chief among those who capture his affection is 13-year-old José Luis SÁnchez del Rio, who would be declared a martyr and beatified by Pope Benedict in 2005. José is portrayed by Mauricio Kuri, a 14-year-old actor performing in his second movie.

The film portrays SÁnchez del Rio’s capture by government forces during a battle with the Cristeros. He was tortured in an attempt to get him to renounce his faith. The torture included cutting off the soles of his feet and forcing him to walk down cobblestone streets, and watching the hanging of another teenage Cristero. His captors promised to release SÁnchez del Rio if he shouted “Death to Christ the King,” but he refused to do so. Enraged soldiers bayoneted and shot him; as the boy lay dying he made a cross in the dirt with his blood. Sahuayo, José’s hometown, is a popular site of pilgrimage for Mexican Catholics today.

Kuri wears a medal of SÁnchez del Rio around his neck, and said, “The world needs to know about him.”

Early in the film, Kuri’s character develops a close bond with Father Christopher, a loveable, elderly priest portrayed by Peter O’Toole. A mischievous José first pelts the elderly cleric with fruit, and is made to work for the priest as a punishment. The boy quickly comes to love the old man and his Faith. When the government begins its crackdown on the Church, José begs Father Christopher to go into hiding. The priest refuses to leave his flock, and calmly walks out to face the wrath of the federales. A tearful José watches it all.

Irish-born O’Toole is no stranger to the Catholic faith, having once served as an altar boy. O’Toole, in fact, suggested to director Dean Wright that he include in the movie a scene in which Father Christopher teaches José how to serve Mass. O’Toole also advised Wright that when the soldiers take Father Christopher prisoner, that they should “grab his arm, but gently and with respect and honor,” as the priest would be willing to offer himself as a martyr.

Along with the killing of José, Father Christopher’s abduction by the federales is the biggest tear-jerker in the movie. “When we filmed the scene where José tells Father Christopher the soldiers are coming for him, all of us in the film crew were crying,” Wright said.

Wright has worked in visual effects on big-budget Hollywood films such as Titanic, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. He was also an executive in charge of special effects for Disney. While working on the third Lord of the Rings film, The Return of the King, he had the opportunity to do second unit directing (without principal actors). For Greater Glory is Wright’s debut as director.

Wright grew up in Arizona, and spent much of his life in Southern California, but, like many involved with the project, had never heard of the Cristero rebellion. “When I read the original draft, I was stunned,” he recalled. “I thought Mexico was a devout Catholic country; I couldn’t imagine that there was a time when the Church was outlawed.”

In preparation for shooting For Greater Glory, Wright traveled extensively in Mexico, visiting the sites where the Cristero rebellion occurred and “connecting with the country and people.” He met with descendants of the Cristeros, and visited small shrines to priests who refused to leave their flocks and were hung or shot by the federales. Most of the scenes were shot where the events actually occurred.

Wright noted that many of the stories he heard of the rebellion were actually much worse than what is portrayed in film. In one story he heard, for example, the federales were chasing Cristero sympathizers, and some villagers sealed them inside a wall to hide them from the government forces. The federales came, could not find the rebels, but shot the villagers instead. Those sealed inside the wall could not escape, and died an agonizing death. This and other gruesome stories did not make it into the film, Wright said, “because while we tried to present the facts as they were, we didn’t want to overwhelm people.”

Wright met with descendants of General Gorostieta, who shared with him personal letters the general had written. He recalled, “They wanted me to know he loved his wife.”

Wright also had ample technical advice on correct portrayals of the Catholic faith, including priests on the set, and was meticulous about making the film historically accurate. In the closing credits of the film, historical photos of the rebellion are interspersed to remind viewers that the events were not fiction. “At the end, I don’t want the audience to applaud,” Wright said. “I want them to contemplate: this actually happened.”

Wright does not stress the film’s religious references, but doesn’t deny they’re there. Father Christopher’s arrest is shot from above, for example, a “God’s-eye view.” A bloodied José walks to his execution in a manner reminiscent of the Way of the Cross; a dead José is cradled in the arms of his mother, evoking the PietÀ, and with his arms out-stretched like Christ on the cross.

“We wanted to tell the story in an entertaining way, and not with an ‘in your face’ theme,” said Wright. “You can ruin a story if you’re too preachy.”

Themes of the film, he said, include kindness, forgiveness, and faith. Father Christopher, for example, shows kindness to José after the boy plays a prank on him. That kindness, in turn, helps foster goodness in José, which he transmits to others.

Wright noted that “protection from above” aided the production of the film, helping him finish on-time and on-budget. Shooting in remote areas of Mexico was difficult, and the weather was unpredictable. The day after they completed filming the scenes at the rebel camp in the mountains, for example, a hurricane swept through the region.

The film has been well-received in Mexico, Wright said, but has had its critics. “One reviewer said we were ‘glorifying Catholic terrorists,’” he said. “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that pairing of words.”

Wright says he is open to future film projects with similar subjects. He noted, “Many people have suggested I do a film on the Spanish Civil War [1936-39]. It’s similar to the Cristeros rebellion in Mexico. It happened, but no one wants to talk about it.”

One practicing Catholic featured in For Greater Glory is Eduardo VerÁstegui, who plays Anacleto Gonzalez Flores, a martyr in the war who resisted the government but refused to take up arms. Flores was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

Having been born in Mexico and attending public schools there, VerÁstegui was embarrassed by his ignorance of the Cristero War, and began to read about it. He became passionate about sharing the story of “this dark period in Mexican history.”

“It’s not taught in schools because it was an embarrassment for the government,” he said. “But we shouldn’t bury it in a hole.  By exposing this wound, we can heal it.”

The star of the pro-life, pro-family film Bella began his acting career as a nominal Catholic, but had a conversion experience at age 28. He resolved that he would not take any roles at odds with his newly discovered faith, nor ones that portrayed Latinos in a negative light. Playing Flores was a perfect fit.

“Flores was a peacemaker, a Mexican Gandhi,” VerÁstegui said. “He fought for his faith, using peaceful means. Playing him made me ask myself, ‘Are you willing to die for your faith?’”

The experience also showed him the ugliness of which human beings are capable. “If we don’t have God at the center of our lives, we can be monsters,” he said.

For Greater Glory is a fine film, shot in beautiful locations, with some great lines (General Gorostieta: “Men fire bullets, but God decides where they will land”). With a large cast of characters and multiple storylines, it may be difficult for some to follow, but this can serve as a justification to view the film several times. The film is not suitable for young children, due to its violence and bloody martyrdom of José (the film has an R rating for war violence and some disturbing images).

In an era where religious people are often portrayed as hypocritical at best, evil at worst, this film offers a positive portrayal of the Catholic Church, its clergy and laity, in the most adverse of circumstances.

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About Jim Graves 219 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.