You are probably familiar with the story of the Rosetta Stone. It was a stone tablet that was the key to finally unlocking the meaning of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. The tablet was so important because the text on the document was recorded not only in hieroglyphs but also in Greek, a language we did understand. By comparing the two languages, and piecing together knowledge that was extant about ancient Egypt, within twenty years of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, we all were reading Egyptian hieroglyphs like it was the morning edition of The Times.
For Greater Glory, currently in theaters, is a film that chronicles the events of the political turmoil that occurred in Mexico in the 1920's, specifically the period of armed uprising known as the Cristiada, or the Christeros War. The Cristiada was the last major convulsion of the violence that had scarred and divided Mexico since beginning of the revolution in 1910, a period of time in which it is estimated that over two million people died.
In this telling of the story, the President of Mexico, in his zeal to implement the reforms of the 1917 Constitution, begins a brutal campaign against the Catholic Church that included the confiscation of Church property, the banning of religious services, the deportation of foreign-born clergy, and in some cases the execution of priests. In response, a popular uprising occurred, at first peaceful protests, but later armed rebellion. For Greater Glory treats the events surrounding the recruiting of retired General Enrique Gorostieta to lead the zealous but untrained rebel forces.
For Greater Glory is an ambitious project for writer Michael Love and first time director Dean Wright, and for the most part, it is a reasonably good movie. All the technical aspects are there -- it is a visually appealing film with good production values, it has a competent if not brilliant cast, and it tells a complex story well enough. The problem is that there is so much background that is needed to understand the story, that if you don't have it, you simply don't get it. Kind of like the Rosetta Stone, you almost need a comparable text translated into a language that you know in order to figure out what's going on. There's at least another movie or two of backstory the needs to accompany this film for it to work. As it stands, however, it is the story of the suppression of one political entity by that of another, and without the backstory, that's all it is.
I went to see the movie in part at the urging of our parish priest, who extolled the importance of the story as a stark reminder that religious freedom can be easily lost and the defense of that freedom is vitally important. He is, of course, alarmed by the recent decision of the Obama administration to require Catholic employers to begin to fund contraceptive care as part of the insurance they provide for their employees.
The problem with all conflicts is that there are at least two sides, and generally more. Lacking in this film is any convincing portrayal of the depth of devotion that can be a part of the Catholic lifestyle. The fact of the closing of the churches and the prohibition of the celebration of the sacraments was clearly presented in the movie, but the horror of this to Catholics, and the reason this would be devastating, were not clearly demonstrated. It was assumed that the audience would understand the implications. Similarly, there is no reason given for the President's adamant anti-Catholicism. I assume that there was some real or imagined grievance that led to a political climate where the killing of women and children and the hanging of dead bodies from the telephone poles as a warning to the population could be justified, but there was no hint of that reason. Lacking it, President Calles might be seen as simply a demented, Caligula type tyrant. Yet the political party of which he is one of the founding fathers maintained power in Mexico for more than seventy years.
The movie touches upon but does not adequately explore the personal moral dilemma that the Christeros, the rebels, faced. At what point does a Christian respond with lethal force to persecution? "Men will fire bullets, but God will decide where they land," says General Enrique Gorostieta. Does God take sides in such conflicts? What is the appropriate Christian response to injustice? Tantalizing topics, dangled in front of the audience before the film too quickly moves on to the next scene.
As puzzling as some of the story might appear, I also am mystified at the R rating given the movie by the MPAA. Yes, this is a story about violence, but the only difference in the violent content of this movie and The Avengers, Battleship, and even Dark Shadows, all of which were PG-13, is that there is actual historical evidence for the events portrayed in this movie.
Is this a good movie? Yes, but it is not entertaining. It is thought provoking; it should prompt the viewer to do some research. It should leave the viewer dissatisfied, uncomfortable that there are times and places not far from here and now, when a people can not escape violence, when they must decide whether it is better to fight or be consumed by the forces aligned against them.
If you do go, pay particular attention to the young actor Mauricio Kuri who plays the part of Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio. I think we will be seeing more of this guy.
The first time I heard about this movie was at church, when the priest, Fr. Sam West, spoke about it. He had not yet seen it, but urged the congregation to see it, because he had heard that it was a reasonable portrayal of the Cristeros, the people of the rebellion that opposed the secular government of Mexico trying to eradicate religious practice, which for them and for the Cristeros, meant shutting down the Catholic Church.
I did not go to see the film because Fr. Sam recommended it. I didn't go to see it because I read IMDb.com reviews that said it was well-acted. I went to see it because it told a story that my mother had told to me many times, about her mother's story. My grandmother was there.
My grandmother, Josefa Palos de Orozco, was less than five feet tall, and didn't speak English. I never had a conversation with her; the only time I saw her was at my Uncle Buddy's home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and my mother, as usual, was a buffer, or a wall, between me and my relatives. My grandmother always seemed sad and shrunken. But her story was that of the Cristeros in The Greater Glory.
She was one of them, and fled Mexico with her four children (and another on the way, born during her flight) to make a new life in the religious liberty of the United States of America. She took her children away from their native country because her oldest two boys, my uncles Manuel and Salvi, were already becoming involved in the conflict as message runners.
"She was political," my mother told me. "One of the men who was going to run as a political candidate against Calles' party was shot and died in her arms." (Not a sexual "in her arms," by the way.) And further, Mom said that my grandmother commanded her children to never go back, that it was too dangerous. What had my grandmother been up to?
This movie gave me an inkling of what her life might have been like.
There are very few automobiles in this movie; my grandmother said that they went everywhere on horseback.
In a number of scenes, federales ride their horses right into churches to defile the holy places, just as my grandmother recounted when soldiers chased her into a church. Why were soldiers chasing you, Grammy? Weren't you just a simple shopkeeper?
Three of her brothers were hung for being involved in the insurrection that defied the government's law against religious freedom.
According to my mother, my grandmother said that the government of Mexico at that time was quite upset that the Church was opening schools and teaching campesinos -- peasants -- to read and write, opening a can of worms by giving knowledge to people being exploited. I don't know if that's true or not, by the historical record that I can find. That's not in this movie, not in the time period covered by this movie. But it's another tantalizing layer of information for The Greater Glory's background.
I don't know that anyone who isn't Catholic would understand the tantamount importance of the Mass or be able to comprehend the passion of these rebels, or of little Jose's determination not to deny his faith, even when it meant sure and painful death.
Sadly, the film, though important and touching to me personally, is unlikely to appeal to, or be comprehensible to the secularly-oriented or Protestant majority of Americans. There is no compelling explanation in it of the mindset of committed Catholics as to why they would risk their lives or die in defense of their faith.
Along with Bernie, I can see no reason for the R rating given to this film. There was no foul language or sexual content, and though there was deadly force, the portrayal was nothing like the popularly-enhanced heads being blown off or limbs being chopped that can be seen in so many PG-13 movies. El Presidente Calles, of course, would have been delighted that children would not be allowed to see this film -- after all, it might make them ask, "But Mom, why did those people want to go to church and worship God?"
I will see this movie again, with my daughter and grand-daughter, because it was beautiful, and also -- because of my grandmother -- it's our story, too.