Of Saints and Sinners, in a Fevered Mexico

‘For Greater Glory’ Traces Mexico’s Cristero War

“For Greater Glory,” an old-fashioned, Hollywood-style epic that overlays thundering hoof beats with a humid layer of piety, remembers the Cristero War, a bitter 20th-century conflict in which persecuted Roman Catholics rose up against the anticlerical Mexican government.

Largely played down by history books, the war, waged between 1926 and 1929, cost about 90,000 lives. Pope John Paul II later canonized more than two dozen saints and martyrs who fought on the Catholic side.

The movie is a much softer echo of fervent 1950s blockbusters with religious themes, like “The Robe,” set at the dawn of Christianity, in which humble true believers who are ready to sacrifice their lives for their faith stand up to their godless oppressors. The best of those quasi-biblical movies still have the power to stir the blood and elicit tears. Mel Gibson has more recently made angrier and gorier versions of the same thing.

There may be no miracles or choirs of angels here, but religiosity, although restrained, is pervasive. Pablo José Barroso, the film’s producer, founded Dos Corazones Films, a Mexican production company that the press notes state was “created as part of a ministry that produces films to convey messages of faith and family values.”

Dean Wright, who directed “For Greater Glory” from a screenplay by Michael Love, was the visual effects wizard behind the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. This movie, which was filmed on many of the actual sites of the conflict, is impressively spacious. The expansive scale and brisk but unhurried editing keep “For Greater Glory” from stumbling over itself and becoming a bloated, grandiose exhibition of righteous saber rattling. The symphonic score by James Horner confers an inspirational mood that is uplifting without being syrupy.

Even if “For Greater Glory” is considerably more sophisticated than some of its forerunners, its characters are clear-cut saints and sinners. To its credit, the film acknowledges the political history leading up to the war and the bargaining behind the scenes. Bruce Greenwood plays Dwight Morrow, the United States ambassador to Mexico, dispatched from Washington to protect American oil interests while brokering a peace.

But the diplomacy is just a footnote to the struggle for religious freedom. The conflict, which had been simmering for years, erupted when the Mexican president, Plutarco Elias Calles (Rubén Blades), expanded and began brutally enforcing the anticlerical laws of the country’s 1917 constitution. Early scenes show soldiers on horseback breaking into churches, killing priests and destroying church property. Dead bodies are strung up along railroad tracks.

One of the first priests executed is Father Christopher (Peter O’Toole), a rheumy-eyed peace-loving cleric who takes José (Mauricio Kuri), a mischievous boy, under his wing after José lobs a piece of fruit at him. A witness to Father Christopher’s murder, José leaves his family to venture into the countryside, where he joins forces with the rebels and becomes the surrogate son of Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia), a retired general and brilliant tactician hired by the leaders of the country’s ragtag Catholic militias to organize them into a unified army.

Gorostieta, a nonbeliever who champions religious freedom, is running a soap factory when the invitation comes. For a hefty fee, he agrees to develop a strategy based on carefully planned ambushes. Although Gorostieta has a deeply religious wife, Tulita (Eva Longoria, unrecognizable and barely seen in the film), he shares a passionate father-son bond with José that forms the movie’s emotional core.

The boy’s arrest and persecution are staged as a kind of passion play exploited for maximum teary-eyed outrage. This beautiful, fearless young warrior, who refuses to renounce his faith while under torture, is forced to walk barefoot with slashed feet to his own execution. (José was later canonized.)

Mr. Garcia, who sheds copious tears over the boy, is a solid and convincing hero humanized by the attachment. The movie also portrays Gorostieta as edging toward Catholic conversion without actually making the commitment.

Even at 143 minutes, “For Greater Glory” cannot satisfyingly fill out the stories of a half-dozen secondary characters, and there are frustrating gaps in the biographies of Gorostieta and José. The jamming together of so much history and melodrama makes for a handsome movie that is only rarely gripping.

“For Greater Glory” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Violent battle scenes.

The New York Times

A version of this review appears in print on June 1, 2012, on page C6 of the New York edition with the headline: Of Saints and Sinners, In a Fevered Mexico.

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