Saturday, June 9, 2012

Viva Cristo Rey!

I saw Cristiada (aka For Greater Glory). My first impression was that I've never seen a movie quite like it. Or, if I have, it's been a very, very long time.

First, let me get a few things out of the way. There are some technical problems with the film. There were some moments with weak dialogue and the script needed some work in fleshing out the context of what was going on. My wife, for example, was unfamiliar with the overall story of the Cristiada and wound up confused over some of the events. These issues were compounded by mediocre editing, especially in the first half. There was a lot of jumping around to and from scenes that didn't even  last five minutes and added nothing to the plot. In a movie that was pushing two and half hours, these scenes could have been cut. The result would have been a much tighter plot and maybe even less of those aforementioned weak script items.

So there you have the problems. The good news is that none of these problems changes the fact that it's a great movie. The casting was excellent, and I'm not leaving this to the famous people like Andy Garcia or Peter O'Toole. I thought Oscar Isaac was fantastic as El Catorce. Lots of people are talking about the kid who plays Blessed Jose Luis Sanchez and with good reason. He's way better than, say, the kids in Gran Torino, a much more well-known show.

Let's talk about the story-telling, though. It's a tale of war, so you can figure on a lot of battle scenes. They were there, but thankfully they don't drag on. The story here is about the people, and the narrative stays with them. People going in to see a high body count and watch some Catholics kicking butt might be disappointed. Sure, there is that, and it's admittedly welcome to see Catholics willing to fight for the Church. It's why they're fighting that's important. Blood isn't what makes one a martyr; faith does. That means you can't just focus on the shooting. When the time comes for the gear to shift from gunplay to emotion, Cristiada makes the transition without losing any power at all.

I've had a lot of people ask me if it's historically accurate. The answer is "sort of." Some liberties are taken, of course. You don't see some of Fr. Vega's indiscretions and one character's death is far from what really happened. Those things aside, the history is pretty solid. You see the Cristeros do bad things, so it's not like there's white-washing going on. The martyrdoms that took place are probably toned down in the movie in terms of how horrific the tortures were in reality. On the plus side, the St. Joan of Arc Brigades got a lot of much-deserved screen time. The most shocking thing was that the film didn't flinch from showing how the United States was an accessory to the crimes against the Church. Morrow and Coolidge were willing to sell arms to the criminals in the Calles government as long as it helped secure US oil interests.

One downer here: no mention of where Calles enmity towards the Church really came from. In other words, the Masonic connection was ignored. That's a shame but nothing to dwell on.

You're going to hear a lot of folks claim that Cristiada is propaganda or maybe too hokey or melodramatic. What's funny about this is that the true events are even more melodramatic than what was portrayed in  the movie. Consider that the Mexican federales often charged into battle shouting "Long live Satan!" Recall that Calles's armies regularly raped nuns and impressed them into duty as camp followers. The Cristeros went into battle singing hymns. The mother of several Cristeros commented that she did her part by offering up four of her sons for the honor of Christ the King, but the Almighty came up short on his end. He only took two of them. Imagine what the response would have been like if these realities had been shown.

As far as it being propaganda goes, so was Casablanca, but I haven't heard anybody complain about that. Cristiada isn't even really propaganda or it would have left out some of the Cristeros bad behavior. The real problem for reviewers is that they can't stomach a movie about Catholic stuff that doesn't show the Catholics as either stupid or the bad guys. Or they could be like Roger Ebert, and just be a dumb-ass. It's worth reading his comments, given that they are somewhat common in the reviews I've seen so far.

One important subplot involves a 12-year-old boy choosing to die for his faith. Of course the federal troops who shot him were monsters, but the film seems to approve of his decision and includes him approvingly in a long list of Cristeros who have achieved sainthood or beatification after their deaths in the war.

Yeah, Rog, the film "seems" to approve of martyrdom. Believe it or not, going to heaven as a martyr is kind of a big deal. Maybe you missed the part at the beginning where it's explicitly stated that there's no greater glory than dying for Christ. Or perhaps you're just a douche. This next bit is even better:

If it had not hewed so singlemindedly to the Catholic view and included all religions under the banner of religious liberty, I believe it would have been more effective. If your religion doesn't respect the rights of other religions, it is lacking something.

What the crap is this supposed to mean? Ebert seems to have missed the minor point of these events taking place in 1920s Mexico. What other religions were there? Who else was targeted by the Calles law? Maybe the script should have included a scene where the Cristeros find a hidden valley full of Messianic Jews who fled a mythical set of laws preventing them from using a shofar or something. That way some more religions could have been included. Of course, this would have been complete idiocy. Let's just take the comments at face value and admit that Ebert is either stupid or reaching for things to find wrong with the film.

This brings me to my final points. Every Catholic should see this movie. In a day and age when people are willing to sign Protestant statements of faith just so their kids can belong to trendy, hipster social groups, something needs to remind them that the Faith is worth dying for and that it's not "just words" to sign oaths of heresy and schism. Catholics should also watch this movie while recalling the following:

1. There are people (like Roger Ebert) who are going to watch this movie and think that the Cristeros, and all Catholics by extension, are stupid.

2. There are people who are going to see the scenes with Fr. Christopher (Peter O'Toole) and Blessed Jose (Mauricio Kuri) and then make jokes about the sex abuse scandal. Given how the scenes are framed, this is repulsive. It's also the only thing people think about the Church anymore.

3. There are people who will see Cristiada and feel that the actions taken by Calles are justified. Whether it's the French Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, or the Stalinist liquidation, Catholics must understand that there are positive historical perspectives of these things and they aren't terribly hard to find. I've had good friends comment that the Church deserved what it got in the French Revolution because of Her "meddling" with government affairs. He probably thinks the same thing about the Cristeros.

4. The most telling line in the movie is when a character is told that he can save his life simply by saying "Death to Cristo Rey; long live the Federal Government." As Cardinal  George has recently suggested, we might not be all that far from hearing such a demand ourselves. And it will be people like those in #1-3 that applaud when it happens.

So there's my review. Now, go see this movie.

PS- Stay through the credits. It is extremely moving.


Karl said...

Mi esposa wants to read up on the Christeros. She minored in spanish in college, and had never heard of it. Got a book recommendation?

Viva Christo Rey!

Throwback said...

Blood-Drenched Altars by Fr. Francis Kelly is a good history of Mexico overall, with an emphasis on the persecutions of the 20th century. It helps to sort of see how things got to where they did and why so much of the standard Mexican history is revisionist (ie- the horrible, oppressive Spanish, etc.).

Mexican Martyrdom by Fr. Wilfrid Parsons is also worthwhile and is pretty much just about the Cristero War.