'Freedom is Our Lives'
Actor Andy Garcia sits astride a black horse amid acres of scrub brush beneath a blue sky in Durango, Mexico. He is playing Enrique Gorostieta Velarde, a seasoned Mexican general, before a pivotal battle. The general is in the process of inspecting his troops, an army on horseback dressed in sombreros and with bandoliers of ammunition strapped across their chests.
For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada unveils a time when Mexican Christians, in the pursuit of religious freedom, had to choose between their faith and their lives.
“Today we send a message to Calles, and to the world,” he says. “Freedom is not a word just for writers, politicians or fancy documents. It is our wives, it is our children, it is our homes, it is our faith, it is our lives. We must defend it or die trying — it’s not only our duty, it’s our right! Remember: Men may fire the bullets, but God decides where they land. Viva Cristo Rey!”
The battle they are about to face will be one of many during the Cristero War, a conflict that lasted from 1926 to 1929. This often forgotten era of Mexican history is captured in a new film comprised of an ensemble of talented and award-winning actors. For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada unveils a time when Mexican Christians, in the pursuit of religious freedom, had to choose between their faith and their lives.
For Greater Glory is the brainchild of Mexican producer Pablo José Barroso, a successful businessman who began producing a string of small-budget, faith-based films following a powerful rediscovery of his faith. Aimed at furthering Blessed John Paul II’s call for a new evangelization, Barroso’s company Dos Corazones Films released Guadalupe, a dramatic re-telling of the story of St. Juan Diego, among other projects.
But about four years ago, Barroso began dreaming far bigger. He saw the need to reclaim a period of history that is lost to so many of his countrymen, a time when the infamous “Calles Law,” which was imposed by Mexican President Plutarco Calles in 1926, enforced draconian restrictions on the Catholic Church. To tell this story adequately, Barroso sought to break from the small films he had produced in the past and graduate to a larger production with an A-list cast.
“I didn’t want this to look like a very small Mexican movie,” he said. “I wanted this to be like Braveheart, like Gladiator, going around the world and reaching audiences.”
By all appearances, Barroso has achieved his goal. For Greater Glory is reportedly the biggest budgeted film in Mexican history. But it wasn’t the film’s financial largesse — estimated at $25 million — that allowed it to attract talent like Garcia, Peter O’Toole and Eva Longoria. Dean Wright, an Academy Award-nominated visual effects producer for iconic films such as Titanic, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia series, signed on early to make his directorial debut after being impressed with the script. And he wasn’t the only person who found the story compelling.
“It just exploded,” Wright recalled, describing the fevered response to casting calls. “People were hammering us: ‘We want you to see this person. We want that person.’”
When it came time to cast the key character of General Gorostieta, though, there was one name that stood out: Cuban-born actor Garcia.
“For Gorostieta, there’s only a handful of actors that I think could really play the role the right way,” said Wright.
As Gorostieta, Garcia captures the ambition and rugged charisma of a retired military leader who leaves behind his wife and family to lead the Cristero army. Gorostieta helps transform a disorganized band of outlaws into a force that gains victory after victory, despite being outnumbered by federal forces. And although initially skeptical of religion, he is driven by his belief in religious liberty.
“The first stimulus for me as an actor to be a part of this movie was the notion of the quest for absolute freedom,” said Garcia. “Coming from a country where religious freedom was also curtailed and abolished, I was very sensitive to that reality and those struggles.”
For the filmmakers, bringing the dark era of the Cristiada years to life was largely motivated by the silence that surrounds it. As the story unfolds, the audience witnesses the various ways in which committed Catholics responded to their plight. Some, such as Blessed José Anacleto González Flores — who is sometimes referred to as the “Mexican Gandhi” — favored civil disobedience. Others, like Father José Reyes Vega and Victoriano Ramírez, known as “El Catorce,” resorted to armed resistance, beginning a grassroots rebellion of Mexican Catholics from which the term “Cristiada” originated.
The history of the Cristero War remains largely unknown, even to Mexicans. Eduardo Verástegui, who portrays González Flores in the film, experienced this silence first hand.
“When I grew up in Mexico I didn’t know anything about the Cristiada,” he said. “I went to public school; I had never heard anything about it — until I turned 30 years old and I learned of the struggle for religious freedom while on a retreat.”
Wright, likewise, discovered a stark contrast between those who knew about the Cristero War and those who didn’t while travelling across Mexico during the movie’s pre-production phase. In cities, he would ask people, “Do you know about the Cristero War?” They would respond, “What’s that?” But in the small towns and villages, people keep alive the memory of the Mexican martyrs and Cristero heroes through fervent devotion.
“I’d go into a church and … there’d be a little shrine for the priest that had stood up for his flock and had been killed for it,” Wright explained. “It was really moving to see how important it was throughout the country and also how lost it had become.”
Wright and Barroso also sought to create an accurate depiction of the violence carried out against Mexican Catholics. Although never gratuitously, the film depicts priests being executed, churches pillaged and worshippers massacred. One of the more chilling scenes involves the execution of St. José María Robles Hurtado, a martyred priest and Knight of Columbus who blessed and forgave his killers in the face of death.
But the film is primarily driven by the journeys of General Gorostieta and Joselito, a young boy whose unshakable faith leads him to join with the Cristeros in their struggle for religious freedom. Their interwoven stories reveal the impact of a “child-like faith” on a hardened military man.
Based on the life of Blessed José Sánchez del Río, Joselito is played with remarkable authenticity by first-time actor Mauricio Kuri, who holds his own in scenes with both Garcia and O’Toole.
The role of Joselito was also one of the last casting decisions made, but according to Wright, it may have been the best. “I think for me, it was really important to have someone with that incredible youthful exuberance and spirit,” Wright says. “But [Kuri] also had this deep faith; he didn’t have to fake any of it. That was really important because José is the soul of the movie.”
‘NOT ANOTHER HOLLYWOOD MOVIE’
Samuel Goldwyn, the legendary movie producer, once quipped, “Pictures are for entertainment; messages should be sent by Western Union.” Over the years there have been many films that have proven him wrong by both filling theaters and stirring the soul. For Greater Glory can be added that eminent list of movies that transcend entertainment.
For Barroso, the blood, sweat and tears of the movie-making experience is well worth it if For Greater Glory helps reveal who we are and what is important in our lives, weaving together a history that has been buried under decades of fear and denial.
“For me, it’s more than something that happened 80 years ago,” Barroso said. “This is something that really is the foundation not only of Mexico, but I think also of the whole continent. I don’t know what would have happened if these brave people had not stood up for their beliefs.”
Although the film is about specific historical events, the filmmakers believe that its message about religious freedom is universal.
“We live in a time where religious freedom is as tenuous as it’s ever been,” said Wright. “Whether it’s in the United States, the Middle East or Asia, people are standing up and saying, ‘You can’t do that. I have the right to say what I want, to believe what I want and to practice that faith.’”
After seeing an advanced screening of the movie, Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson said, “For Greater Glory is a powerful film that provides a compelling account of a forgotten era of our continent’s history. In celebrating the centrality of religious freedom and man’s need for God, it tells a story of enduring relevance, and is ‘must-see’ viewing for all who care about faith and liberty today.”
Barroso considers the positive feedback that he has received so far to be a validation of his core beliefs. “I think I was searching for a group of people that really believed in what I was trying to show the world,” he said. “This is not only another Hollywood movie; it’s a movie of standing up for what you believe; it’s a … spiritual journey.”
For Greater Glory premiered in Mexico on April 20 and will hit theaters across the United States June 1. For more information, or to view the film’s trailer, visit forgreaterglory.com.
DAVID NAGLIERI is manager of media and research for the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council.