‘For Greater Glory’ Review: Sunday School, Anyone?

"For Greater Glory" doesn't disguise its pro-Catholic message in a heavy-handed retelling of Mexico’s Christeros War

“For Greater Glory” wears both its heart and its cross on its sleeve.

The movie glorifies the Catholic fighters and cause behind Mexico’s Christeros War (1926-29), a conflict that pitted the government against defenders of the Church.

The war started after Mexico’s democratically elected president, Plutarco Elias Calles, began enforcing provisions in the 1917 Constitution intended to separate church and state. His overzealous enforcement led to government troops persecuting Catholics, killing priests and missionaries, and destroying churches.

What began as an anti-government economic boycott by Catholics eventually turned into an armed rebellion in the name of religious freedom. (The film was partially financed by the U.S. branch of the Knights of Columbus, an international Catholic fraternal organization; it was active in raising funds for humanitarian relief during the war and lobbied President Calvin Coolidge to influence the Mexican government, a scene depicted in the film.)

Director Dean Wright, a veteran visual effects specialist (from a couple “Lord of the Rings” and “Chronicles of Narnia” films), makes his directing debut with this would-be epic. Although he piles on thundering, action-heavy battle scenes, the movie is a long slog. Part of the problem is that the “Greater Glory” is so heavy-handed in its pro-Catholic point of view — bloody martyrdom, even by a young boy who is tortured at length and killed for refusing to renounce his faith, is presented as admirable — that it seems more like a Sunday school lesson than a period action-adventure film aimed at a broader audience.

The movie’s dozen major characters include historical figures (several of whom have since been beatified by the Catholic Church as martyrs) as well as fictional ones who represent conflated versions of actual people. It’s an overloaded canvas; few of the characters make much of an impression and the brushstrokes used to tell their stories are far too broad.

The exception is Gen. Enrique Gorostieta Velarde (Andy Garcia), a real-life figure. A brilliant military strategist and a hero of the Mexican Revolution, Velarde is recruited to lead the anti-government fighters though he himself is a non-believer. (His beloved wife, played by a nearly unrecognizable Eva Longoria, is a fervent Catholic.) He accepts the job more for its lucrative pay and the challenges offered — he is bored with his post-military life as a prosperous soap manufacturer — but eventually he too becomes a true believer.

Garcia, striding about in a holster and boots, gives a strong, passionate performance, creating a character both complicated and compelling and grabbing the viewer every time he’s on screen.

Also worth noting are commendable turns by Rubén Blades, who is slyly appealing as the canny Calles; Bruce Greenwood as a pragmatic American ambassador who puts protecting U.S. oil interests in Mexico above objecting to religious persecution; and newcomer Mauricio Kuri, who movingly plays the martyred child. Hamming it up outrageously is Peter O’Toole, who turns up briefly early on as a priest who meets a bloody end.

“Greater Glory” may seem glorious to the devoutly faithful. For the rest of us, though, it’s a movie with a message that’s delivered with all the subtlety of a thundering sermon.