New movie honors Mexican martyrs' heroism

When a friend suggested to actor Eduardo Verástegui that he do a film about the 1926-29 Cristero War in Mexico, he replied, “What’s that?” 

The conflict was a widespread, bloody rebellion against the anti-clerical, anti-Catholic policies of the Mexican government led by President Plutarco Elias Calles; 90,000 died. The story is told in the film “For Greater Glory,” which comes to U.S. theaters June 1. The English-language film stars Andy Garcia and features an international cast.  

Exposing a dark period

Verástegui plays Anacleto González Flores, a martyr in the war who resisted the government but refused to take up arms in the cause. He was beatified in 2005. 

Having been born in Mexico and attending public schools there, Verástegui was embarrassed by his ignorance of the subject and began to read about it. He became passionate about sharing the story of “this dark period in Mexican history.” 

He said, “It’s not taught in schools because it was an embarrassment for the government. But we shouldn’t bury it in a hole. By exposing this wound, we can heal it.” 

Verástegui, 38, was a nominal Catholic until a conversion experience at age 28. He resolved not to take roles at odds with his newly discovered faith, nor ones that portrayed Latinos in a negative light. Hence, playing Flores was a perfect fit. 

“Flores was a peacemaker, a Mexican Gandhi. He fought for his Faith, using peaceful means,” he said. “Playing him made me ask myself, ‘Are you willing to die for your faith?’” 

The experience also showed him the ugliness of which human beings are capable. “If we don’t have God at the center of our lives, we can be monsters.” 

Faithful youth

One of the film’s most moving performances comes from 14-year-old Mauricio Kuri. He plays José Luis Sánchez del Rio, a teenage martyr also beatified in 2005.  

Sánchez del Rio was captured by government forces during a battle with the Cristeros. He was tortured in an attempt to get him to renounce his faith. The torture included cutting off the soles of his feet and forcing him to walk down cobblestone streets, and watching the hanging of another teenage Cristero. His captors promised to release Sánchez del Rio if he shouted “Death to Christ the King,” but he refused. Enraged soldiers bayoneted and shot him; as the boy lay dying he made a cross in the dirt with his blood.  

Kuri wears a medal of Sánchez del Rio around his neck. “The world needs to know about him,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. 

Tear-jerking moments

Early in the film, Kuri’s character develops a close bond with Father Christopher, a lovable, 80-year-old priest portrayed by Peter O’Toole. A mischievous José first pelts the elderly cleric with fruit, and is made to work for the priest as a punishment. The boy quickly comes to love the old man and his Faith. When the government begins its crackdown on the Church, José begs Father Christopher to go into hiding. The priest refuses to leave his flock, and is executed by firing squad by federales. A tearful José watches it all. 

Irish-born O’Toole is no stranger to the Faith, having once served as an altar boy. O’Toole, in fact, suggested to director Dean Wright that he insert the scene where Father Christopher teaches José how to serve Mass. O’Toole also advised Wright that when the soldiers take him prisoner in his church and lead him out to be shot, that they should “grab his arm, but gently and with respect and honor,” as Father Christopher would be willing to offer himself as a martyr. 

Along with the killing of José, Father Christopher’s death was the biggest tear-jerker of the movie. Wright said, “When we filmed the scene where José tells Father Christopher the soldiers are coming for him, all of us in the film crew were crying.” 

Matter of religious liberty

Wright has worked on many big-budget Hollywood films, and in recent years has become a director. In preparation for shooting “For Greater Glory,” he traveled extensively in Mexico. Most of the scenes are shot in locations where the events actually occurred. 

Wright is not overt about the film’s religious references, but doesn’t deny they exist. Father Christopher’s execution is shot from above, for example, a “God’s-eye view.” José walks to his execution, a la the Way of the Cross; a dead José is cradled in the arms of his mother reminiscent of the Pietà. 

For Andy Garcia, who portrays the lead character of Gen. Enrique Gorostieta Velarde, the film is about religious freedom (only coincidentally being released as the U.S. bishops battle with President Barack Obama’s administration about its Health and Human Services contraception mandate).  

In the movie, Garcia’s character is a retired general turned soap maker who watches with disapproval as the Calles government cracks down on the Church. Unlike his wife (Eva Longoria), he is not a believer, but believes in religious liberty. The Cristeros come to him to ask him to be their leader, and the promise of money and glory persuade him to accept.  

“I come from Cuba, where religious freedom was taken away,” Garcia said. “When they take away your freedom of religion, what’s next?”  

A Spanish subtitled version of the film has been released in Mexico, Garcia said, and has become the country’s second highest grossing film. Those praising him for his portrayal of his character included Gorostieta’s granddaughter. 

“For Greater Glory” is a good film, with beautiful scenery and fine dialogue. Its myriad of characters and multiple storylines are a bit difficult to follow, but can serve as a justification to view the film a second time. The film, which is rated R, is not suitable for young children. 

In an era where religious people are often portrayed as hypocritical at best, evil at worst, the film offers a positive portrayal of the Catholic Church, its clergy and laity, in the most adverse of circumstances. As director Wright said, the movie’s themes are faith and sacrifice, ably demonstrated by the martyrs of the Cristeros War. 

Jim Graves writes from California.