“Light and dark,” “faith and sin,” are not just among the lyrics of the introductory song of the movie “For Greater Glory” (“Cristiada” in Spanish), but they were the cause of the Cristero War in the early 20th century in Mexico, which led to the canonization and beatification of more than 30 martyrs. 

An obscure time in Mexican history gave way to the immortalization of ordinary people whose strong faith shook the country leading to civil war (1926-1929) led by General Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia) that the local government of the time tried to disguise as an insignificant revolt.

More than 90,000 people died during the violent war that ended with a “precarious peace treaty,” after the United States government helped broker an agreement between the Mexican government and the Catholic Church. 

The movie “depicts the difficult circumstances in which Catholics of that time lived --- and died for --- their faith,” declared Archbishop José Gomez, who has endorsed the film. “It is a top-flight production whose message of the importance of religious freedom has particular resonance for us today.”

That piece of Mexican history remained in drawers because of “fear of opening old wounds” as Plutarco Elías Calles (played by musician and actor Ruben Blades), the president who spearheaded the war, founded the party that ruled the country for the next seven decades.

“For Greater Glory” is the first movie that tells the story through a plot filled with emotions, religious beliefs and images, including the depiction of Jesus’ death. 

“This is a good opportunity for people to know about this,” said 14-year-old Mauricio Kuri, who plays José Luis Sanchez, beatified in 2005 by Pope Benedict XVI together with other 12 Cristero martyrs. In May 2000, Blessed Pope John Paul II had canonized 25 other martyrs, including several priests.

Sanchez’s character is depicted as a typically mischievous boy from a small village whose parents are devout Catholics. He befriends Father Christopher (played by Peter O’Toole), who instills in the boy values such as “standing up for what one believes.”

“The world needs to know about him [José] and his story,” Kuri told reporters during an April 25 junket press interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. “We know about the persecution by the Nazis, the Chinese and in Cuba, but we don’t know about this.”

Eduardo Verástegui (who plays Blessed Anacleto Gomez, a pacifist lawyer sometimes called the Mexican Gandhi for supporting non-violent resistance) compared Calles to Hitler and called the movie the “Schindler’s List of Mexico.”

The movie shows “how this guy [Calles] manipulated everything,” said the actor who starred in the 2006 movie “Bella.” 

Director Dean Wright, described by the media as a “Hollywood effects guru” for his work in “Titanic,” “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “Chronicles of Narnia,” said Christ’s death depiction was “purposeful.”

He said visual imagery such as crosses and other visual motifs were used to reinforce the theme of faith and sacrifice. Camera movements produce the same visual (and emotional/spiritual) effect.

Andy Garcia told reporters the movie is a “gift” to relatives of the martyrs. He said he received a letter of gratitude from Gorostieta’s granddaughter for “honoring” her grandfather who for many years “never received any credit because in Mexico [the Cristeros War] is never talked about.”

“Finally my grandfather’s efforts are brought to light,” she told Garcia.

Mentioning the lack of freedom in his native Cuba, Garcia, who said he is a “man of faith,” noted he finds parallels to his own life in his character. He said it was a “privilege” to be “underneath the skin” of someone like Gorostieta, who “deserves to be recognized to what he committed to for his family and his country.”

Aside from Mexico City, the movie was shot in historic locations in the Mexican states of Durango, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Tlaxcala and Puebla. It took more than three years to produce the project, producer Pablo Jose Barroso told The Tidings during a phone interview from his office in Mexico City.

Barroso, a real estate businessman and owner of Dos Corazones Films, admitted that he and his family learned from previous experience that unless they produced a movie in English, “the universal language,” they would not be successful on bringing messages across a wider audience rather than the local public.

“Guadalupe,” a movie about the Virgin of Guadalupe released in 2006, and “La Leyenda del Tesoro” (2011), were a total failure in Mexico’s box office, he said.

But this time, Dos Corazones Films invested an increased (and undisclosed) amount of money in an “inspirational script,” written by Michael Love who “has the advantage of being bilingual since he was raised in Mexico by American parents.”

Barroso said he was proud to have brought in director Wright, who understood that the visuals the same locations offered were enough to tell the story. He praised the director’s ability to deliver a message.

“We wanted a movie that carried quality in art and a deep non-preachy message,” said Barroso, who although viewing himself as a practicing Catholic, said that “For Greater Glory” is not about Catholicism but about rescuing a piece of Mexican history that not many people knew about, including himself. “And it’s also about entertainment,” he added.

Rather than the cast led by Garcia --- which also includes actors Oscar Isaac (“Drive”), Oscar-nominated Catalina Sandino Moreno (“Maria Full of Grace”), and Santiago Cabrera (“Heroes”) --- the Mexican producer said another important part of the story is the music, led by Oscar-winning composer James Horner (“Avatar,” “Titanic,” “Braveheart”) and recorded at the London-based Abbey Road Studios, same where the Beatles recorded many of their records.

“For Greater Glory” opened April 20 in Mexico, reaching No. 1 in gross for all admissions at the box office and second place overall behind “Titanic 3D,” taking in $1.06 million. The following weekend it remained No. 2.

“We don’t have the numbers for this past weekend, but I’ve heard it’s still pretty high,” said Barroso. 

He rejected critics who charged that the movie was released to denigrate one of the parties contending for upcoming presidential elections in Mexico and to take advantage of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Cerro del Cubilete (Beaker Hill), which features a statue of Cristo Rey (Christ the King), a tribute to the martyrs of the Cristero War.

“I guess this was just providential,” he said. “We were just ready to release the movie and it happened to coincide with his visit.”

He also highlighted how by this time when the movie is about to open in the U.S. there is an ongoing conversation about religious freedom.

Depending on reactions to the movie in the U.S., he noted, distribution in Europe and Central and South America will follow.

Future plans include a production about the life of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Conventual Franciscan friar who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz during World War II.

“For Greater Glory” opens in U.S. theaters June 1. The relics of six Knights of Columbus martyred during the Cristero War and canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000, will be on display May 14-24 in Chapel 5 of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. The relics’ five-city pilgrimage, which began in Houston on April 28, also will visit San Antonio, Phoenix and Tucson.

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