I have no doubt that Mexico’s Cristero War (1926-1929) was a very potent time of tumult, as President Plutarco Elías Calles proceeded to pass anti-Catholic laws, closing up churches and casting out all foreign-born priests with his legislation. Many civilians rebelled, peacefully at first, until escalation inevitably followed. It’s the stuff of real life, and of high drama, but Dean Wright’s directorial debut, “For Greater Glory,” translates little of that latter quality to the screen, instead stuffing his 140-minute drama with simplistic speeches, sermons, shootouts, and shouting in the halls of power.
To judge from Michael Love’s script, the war was a rather clean-cut affair. On one side, twice-decorated military man Enrique Gorostieta Velarde (Andy Garcia) leading 20,000 rebels against El Presidente (Rubén Blades) and legions of uniformed men who desecrated statues of Christ before stringing up members of the clergy. It’s never difficult to determine which force deserves to be hissed at and which to cheer on, a slant that transforms every lead character into a martyr-in-waiting. Velarde, an admitted atheist, is bound to find God; a hot-headed outlaw (Oscar Issac) will have to be humbled; and a pacifist (Catalina Sandino Moreno) must find herself forced to smuggle ammunitions for the sake of her cause.
The proceedings are a bit overwrought, and the cast a tad overstuffed, but Wright tends to capably convey action and knows when to let suspense simply play itself out, remaining with Moreno’s character as she risks capture on a train, for example, letting her face communicate the stakes rather than leaning back on James Horner’s generically sweeping score -- a score that, it should be said, still often lends a larger sense of scope than the direction itself does, despite so much horseback travel occurring along such wide open countryside. Garcia and Isaac bring sufficient gravitas and gruff to their roles, respectively, while Peter O’Toole (as a priest) and Bruce Greenwood (an American ambassador) round out the ensemble with an effortless sense of class. As Enrique’s wife, Eva Longoria doesn’t stick out too sorely, though she is relegated to a handful of early scenes before vanishing from the picture, her place far from the battlefield.
For the central hour or so, once the pace picks up and stakes become clear, one might be tempted to call the film outright old-fashioned in its depiction of unlikely yet vital rebellion. This is all despite the recurring appearance of José (Mauricio Kuri), a young boy who befriends O’Toole’s character, only to witness his brutal murder and take up the fight. At first, he comes across as a scrappy outlet from the all-adult matters of guerrilla warfare, only to serve more cloyingly as a surrogate son for Garcia’s stern leader and, ultimately, the cause’s littlest martyr. José’s initially meandering, arguably pandering subplot pays off with clumsy, shameless scenes of the young boy enduring graphic torture with the dignity of a thousand saints; the violence wouldn’t feel so offensive if the character -- indeed based on a real-life figure -- didn’t come off as such a transparent dramatic pawn with which to earn our sympathies and spur our heroes into action.
Alas, this is the reductive hazard of bringing true stories to a widespread audience. There can only be so many scenes of suffering unfolding in slow motion before the whole seems to be following suit, and above-average production values can’t prevent naked sentiment from neutering the impact that a film like “For Greater Glory” so clearly hopes to have.