Movie explores faith in Cristero War against forced secularism

The director of the upcoming movie “Cristiada” describes his film about the armed resistance against the attempt to secularize Mexico by force in the 1920s as an inspiring tale of faith and religious freedom.

“Our film follows the stories of five ordinary people from across the country who chose to stand up for their rights,” director Dean Wright told CNA on April 4. “Ultimately, once they found themselves in this little civil war, they had to decide what they were willing to do and how far they were willing to go to stand up for freedom.”

The director has said Catholics have been “overwhelmingly supportive” of the film and filmmakers are “very excited” about the high level of interest in the movie’s portrayal of a tumultuous period in Church history.

In 1926 Mexico’s President Plutarco Elias Calles began strict enforcement of anti-clerical laws, sparking opposition from the Catholic Church.

These laws were discriminatory and quickly became “a frontal attack” on Catholic beliefs, Wright explained. The Mexican bishops suspended all public worship in Mexico in hopes of forcing a resolution.

“There was no negotiation, and people were left in the middle,” the director said. They protested and marched in the street, actions which President Calles interpreted as a threat to his rule.

“He responded with violence, in an attack on a church in Guadalajara. Dozens if not hundreds were killed.”
Opponents of Calles organized into home-grown armies of Cristeros, “soldiers for Christ” who united to stand up for their freedom of religion. They took up the rallying cry “Viva Cristo Rey,” which means “Long live Christ the King!”

“Cristiada,” planned for release in late 2011, is the first movie Wright has directed. He has previously worked as a visual effects producer and supervisor on movies like “The Lord of the Rings” and the “Chronicles of Narnia” series.

He was introduced to the Cristero War through his friendship with Mexican producer Pablo Jose Barroso, who sent him a script he had developed about the event.

Wright was intrigued by the “incredibly inspirational people” whose lives form the basis for the movie.

“They’re ordinary people who are thrust into a position of monumental decisions that affect not just them and their family but their whole community and their nation.”

Actor Andy Garcia plays Enrique Gorostieta Velarde, a very respected and successful general who would take command of the Cristero armies.

“He was living the life of a man who feels his best days are behind him,” Wright explained. He was accused of being an atheist and had “issues with the organized Church.”

“His goal was to help reestablish the right to freedom of religion for everyone,” the director said, but in the course of the film “we see him rediscover not only the meaning of his life, but the meaning of his faith.”

Other characters in “Cristiada” are not so admirable.

Fr. Jose Reyes Vega, played by Santiago Cabrera, is a priest “you won’t see canonized,” Wright dryly remarked. He took up arms against the anti-clerical government, seeing war as the only way to bring his country back “from the brink of complete loss of faith.”

“He makes mistakes,” the director added. “And he causes an incident that almost single-handedly kills the Cristero movement.”

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The priest was responsible for the burning of a train in which dozens of civilians were killed. The attack caused people to become extremely fearful of the Cristeros.

“This is something he is haunted with the rest of his life,” Wright said.

Peter O’Toole plays Fr. Christopher, a priest who unlike Fr. Vega is committed to peace.

President Calles is played by Ruben Blades, a onetime candidate for the presidency of Panama. The director said Blades is “fantastic” in portraying a man who is “pushed and pushed by the successes of the Cristeros.”

“His counter-reaction … creates an image of someone almost Nixonian in his belief that everyone is out to get him.

“That’s how things go so far afield and why it becomes so bloody,” explained Wright.

Other characters include General Gorostieta’s wife Tulita, played by Eva Longoria, who is instrumental in keeping the leader motivated.

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Eduardo Verastegui plays Anacleto Gonzalez Flores, a brilliant lawyer and an ardent pacifist. Flores was executed by the Mexican government in 1927 and beatified as a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

Actress Catalina Sandino Moreno plays Adriana, a composite of real-life women involved in helping the Cristeros.

Oscar Isaac plays Victoriano “El Catorce” Ramirez. He received his nickname “The Fourteen” after he single-handedly killed 14 federales sent to kill him.

“His story becomes that of legend, and he ultimately becomes a great leader and a general in the movement,” Wright said.

The filmmaker also alluded to the story of a young teenager named Jose.

“It’s heartbreaking at times what he has to go through, because he has that purity and innocence of faith and belief.”

“Cristiada” raises questions about whether someone would risk his or her life or do what the Cristeros did to ensure the freedom of their families, Wright said. It also raises the question of whether the Cristeros had to fight, or could have secured freedom through peaceful means.

The director connected the events of the film to U.S. history and to the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

“We came here from religious persecution, we came for freedom of speech,” he pointed out.

Wright also said he was amazed that the Cristeros War, an event “so universal in its appeal,” has never really been explored as a movie. If someone took away Americans’ freedom of belief “we wouldn’t stand for it.”  “Well that’s what was happening in Mexico.”

“Thankfully, the war ended, and Mexico is a free country,” added Wright, a self-described Christian.

Wright said he met with priests and Barroso met with many bishops and cardinals while making the movie.

“It resonates with many of them, especially in the U.S.”

The persecution caused a northward mass exodus from Mexico, and there are a number of bishops with Cristero heritage in prominent positions in both countries.

“I believe they will be very happy with the story and the movie that resulted from all of that,” Wright said.