Some stories, by the injustice they expose, beg to be told. Think of how “The Killing Fields” brought to light the murderous regime in Cambodia. Or what “All the President’s Men” did for corruption in Washington.
A new movie does a similar service for those who suffered torture and death under an oppressive Mexican government. Yet the message of this movie may not be embraced by the mainstream media or opinion makers because it does not fit the preferred modern narrative.
In “For Greater Glory,” to be released in June, faithful Catholics are the oppressed ones and the Church is the persecuted body. Heroes are executed, crying out “Viva Cristo Rey” – “Long live Christ the King!” – and priests are hanged in the sanctuaries of their own churches. Maniacal soldiers carrying out the orders of an obsessed Mexican president break down church doors, fire on worshipers, smash religious images and stable their horses by the altar.
The story is not a fable, or an account of some ancient encounter between church and state. These events, and worse, occurred in broad daylight, before the eyes of a shocked world, some 90 years ago, in the country just south of the U.S. border. Relatives of martyrs live to tell the story of what happened during Mexico’s Cristero period in the 1920s and 1930s. Even today, some restrictive laws remain on the books, and until recent years, priests were not allowed to wear clerical garb in public.
Perhaps you did not know these facts, or had not even heard of the Cristero rebellion. This is not surprising, since many Mexicans do not know this period of their history. It is avoided either as a bad memory, or a topic that is too incendiary to raise in public. Yet it was a time of saints. The Knights of Columbus, which prompted the U.S. government to negotiate peace in the bloody conflict, claims six martyr-priests from the period who were tortured and killed for simply serving their flocks.
The Cristero period is one that Catholics in America – North, South and Central – should know about and learn from. It is a cautionary story about how church-state relations can go so wrong, and also about the proper response to government suppression of religion. Yet “For Greater Glory” is not a heavy-handed religious film. There are good and bad characters on either side, and some appear to do the right thing for the wrong reason. It is not clear that the Mexican bishops always made the best decisions in response to the draconian laws of President Plutarco Calles. Played in masterly fashion by Ruben Blades, Calles comes off as cruel and ruthless, yet also as a leader who loves his country and seeks to protect it from outside influences.
The two marquee stars are Andy Garcia and Eva Longoria, who play a married couple torn by national events. Garcia portrays Cristeros General Enrique Gorostieta, and Longoria leaves her TV “Desperate Housewives” image behind to play a strong, pious wife.
One of the major themes of the movie is the contradictions that may arise in waging a war for religion. How far can a follower of Christ go in defending his Church and his freedom? Does opting for violence inevitably lead to consequences and excesses that betray Gospel values? This conflict of conscience is dramatized by an elderly priest, played by Peter O’Toole, who refuses to fight, and a younger priest who becomes a leader of the armed rebellion.
Since persecution and oppression of the Church continue in many places around the globe, this movie should be seen by all who would defend their faith.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.