An occasional review of news and views from The Cornerstone Forum.
Gil Bailey has accolades for the new film, “For Greater Glory,” starring Andy Garcia. The film is based on the true story of Mexico’s Cristero War (1926-29), which pitted Catholics against a newly-elected government headed by President Plutarco Calles. In response to Calles’ often brutal enforcement of anticlerical provisions in the 1917 constitution, the Church hierarchy suspended all religious services. Bereft of the sacraments on which they depended for salvation, lay Catholics throughout Mexico rose up in arms against the federales. As the conflict worsened, churches were burned, nuns were harassed, priests were murdered, and peasants were publicly hanged.
“A moving and powerful film,” Bailie writes.
The release of the film—and Bailie’s recommendation—were well timed for the beginning of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ “Fortnight For Freedom” conference, which ends July 4. The bishops have called for “prayer and public witness for religious freedom,” which they believe is under attack by the Obama administration on account of the contraception coverage mandate in his Affordable Care Act. Get it? Obama = President Calles, and U.S. Catholics = Mexican Catholics of a century ago. Watching this film could really get your ire up, and the bishops are waiting at the phone banks for your call.
Film dramas based on historical events have an unfortunate tendency to, well, dramatize those events. Audiences like stories with heroes and villains—the more Manichean, the better—and most producers are more than willing to deliver, even if that means ignoring historical context or neglecting the grey shades on their palette.
Daniel Ramirez, writing for Religion Dispatches, (“Religious Freedom Gets Hollywood Treatment,” 6/17/12) is not nearly as impressed with the film as Gil Bailie. He points out that the conflict underlying the Cristeros War was rooted in long-standing tensions between the Church and the State. Since the mid-19th century, Mexican liberals (including many liberal priests) had tried to untether the two in order to break the Church’s monopolies and secure for Mexico church-state separation like that of their neighbor to the North.
The problem from the separationists’ point of view was that the Church had over-weening power in matters of birth, marriage, and death, and it used state power to enforce its tithing requirements. It also held vast properties from which it derived considerable economic clout.
The 1857 Constitution and Reforma laws restricted the Church’s power and established religious pluralism in Mexico for the first time, but the matter was far from settled from the Church’s point of view. The hierarchy fought the liberals tooth-and-nail for decades, during which the country was repeatedly torn apart by violent struggles over religious freedom—on the one hand, the Church’s presumed “freedom” to dominate and monopolize religious life in Mexico, and on the other, the freedom of Catholics and non-Catholics alike to live outside the Church’s sphere of control. (The vast majority of the separationists were in fact Catholic.)
In his review, Daniel Ramirez finds fault with the film for revealing so little about the historical context and instead focusing only on the outrages committed by one faction at a particular stage of the conflict. This imposes a heavy burden on history-challenged audiences (even Mexicans, as it happens), especially when the film’s producer (Pablo Jose Barroso) has publicly stated that his sympathies are with the Church. Were he to offer up a historical drama based on the French Revolution, I think we can expect that the violent anti-clericalism of that period would be depicted without reference to France’s centuries-long struggles for religious freedom, going back at least to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) and the Edict of Nantes (1598).
“For Greater Glory” has not been well-received by American film critics. Roger Ebert writes, “…it is well-made, yes, but has such pro-Catholic tunnel vision I began to question its view of events.” Stephen Holden of The New York Times has compared it to Christian mega-hits of the 1950’s such as The Robe. Robert Abele of the Los Angeles Times has called it a “stodgy, repetitive, and overblown slog.”