[Screen It]

(2012) (Andy Garcia, Oscar Isaac) (R)

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Drama: A retired general agrees to lead a rebellion against the President of Mexico after that leader enacts anti-religious provisions mainly targeting Catholics.
It's 1926, and Mexican President Plutarco Calles (RUBEN BLADES), fearing the influence of foreigners in his land, has enacted various anti-religious provisions in the Mexican Constitution, mainly targeting Catholics. As a result, some Church officials are deported, while religious free speech and wearing of religious attire are outlawed.

With a petition to reverse the law failing in Congress, a revolutionary uprising against the Mexican government springs up, initially encouraged by Mayor Picazo (NESTOR CARBONELL) and with the help of rebels such as Anacleto Gonzalez Flores (EDUARDO VERASTEGUI) and Adriana (CATALINA SANDINO MORENO). The so-called Cristeros are unofficially headed by Mexican priest Father Vega (SANTIAGO CABRERA) and the "follow no rules" gunslinger Victoriano 'El Catorce' Ramirez (OSCAR ISAAC).

But they realize they need a true military leader and thus hire retired General Enrique Velarde (ANDY GARCIA), despite the fact that he's not devout and notwithstanding the worry of his Catholic wife, Tulita (EVA LONGORIA). As American Ambassador Morrow (BRUCE GREENWOOD) tries to convince Calles to put an end to the actions while also hopping for greater oil concessions from the leader, Enrique decides to take the post, mainly to defend his belief in freedom of religion.

And he gets an unlikely ally in a young boy, José Luis Sánchez del Rio (MAURICIO KURI) who witnessed soldiers murder a kind and elderly priest, Father Christopher (PETER O'TOOLE), and now wants to join the rebellion. Enrique then sets out to use his military strategy prowess to defeat the government soldiers, even as Calles turns up the level of atrocities committed against the rebels.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
There's been a lot of talk in recent years about a war on religion in the United States and that it's specifically aimed at Christians and, toward the end of the year, Christmas. I don't believe it and none of my Christian or non-Christian friends buy into the notion either. After all, Christianity is the dominate religion in the U.S. (recent numbers show that more than 75 percent of the population practice that faith) and there have been no explicitly stated declarations of "war" on that or any other religion.

Yet, a small number of very vocal people (and one cable news channel that always tries to stir up controversy for ratings) believe that trying to accommodate people of all faiths is an attack on theirs. That said, there are some stupid localized decisions such as calling a Christmas tree a holiday tree and so on that do occur from time to time.

But a war, or a coordinated attack? C'mon, all one has to do is read through history to see real accounts of real wars where blood was shed and lives were lost either through attempts to induce certain faiths on others or eradicate religion elsewhere. It's happened for thousands of years, some well-publicized and/or noted and others not. One of the latter, that I don't ever recall hearing about or even learning in school, but that occurred less than a century ago was the Cristero War that raged from 1926 to 1929.

That's when Mexican President Calles and his cronies in that country's congress decided that "foreign" religions had become a menace to their society and way of life and thus imposed a number of laws severely restricting all aspects of Catholicism. As people are prone to do when something is taken away from or at least restricted, the citizens fought back, resulting in a three-year war where tens of thousands of rebel fighters and federal soldiers were wounded or killed during the various battles, skirmishes and ambushes.

That tale now hits in the screen in the form of "For Greater Glory," a well-intentioned and occasionally stirring but somewhat clunky historical drama that clearly won't go down in the annals of cinemadom as either a stellar drama or war pic. Feeling something like a glorified made for TV movie, the pic comes off as both too short (in terms of fully telling its various subplots) and too long (clocking in at 143-some minutes without any great sense of building momentum to make that time move along at a brisk pace).

As directed by Dean Wright from a screenplay by Michael James Love, the film begins with a quote (about just the heart lying "Between Heaven and Earth, Between Light and Dark and Between Faith and Sin) that sets the stage for what's to follow. There are also on-screen title pages that deliver a minimum bit of exposition to get everyone up to speed, sort of, in terms of what's what and where the plot is headed. A bit -- okay, a lot more -- back-story probably would have been beneficial, as would have been a greater understanding of who characters are and what makes them tick.

Some are easy to identify, including Peter O'Toole playing an elderly Catholic priest who takes in a young rascal (Mauricio Kuri) who finds religion while serving his "community time" sentence (for earlier pelting the priest in the face with some fruit), as well as Andy Garcia portraying a retired general who still longs for battle and strategy and thus accepts the offer to lead the unorganized rebels (despite the concerns of his wife played by Eva Longoria who's barely in the movie).

While all of them could have used some additional fleshing out, they're certainly more developed than the mystery man (Oscar Isaacs as the gunslinger, ranch hand or other unknown vocation) who's good at killing federales; Santiago Cabrera as the priest/general who makes some questionable calls in the heat of fighting back; or Catalina Moreno and Eduardo Verastegui as rebels of some sort who are barely identified if at all.

So, we have lots of characters and various sub-stories, but none get the full time they deserve and they don't mesh together as well as I would have liked to have seen. And in terms of the war, its battles and the strategies therein, not much is discussed and thus forward momentum is severely curtailed. What we end up with here are various scenes of people shooting at each other and some torture and hangings, but no clear direction where everything or even anything is headed.

It all gets a bit repetitive after a while, with James Horner's occasionally effective but ultimately over-used score not helping matters by obviously trying too hard to inject greater dramatic and/or emotional impact into the various proceedings. Some of the war footage is occasionally interrupted by scenes of Bruce Greenwood playing the U.S. Ambassador trying to strike a deal with Calles (Ruben Blades), but that similarly is not fleshed out enough to any satisfying degree.

In the end, the film sort of feels like comparing "A Bridge Too Far" to "Saving Private Ryan." Both are war flicks with lots of roles and battle scenes, but the former felt overstuffed and in need of editing, while the latter is one of the tightest and most gripping offerings ever made in its genre. While it has an important message to tell, "For Greater Glory" feels like it needs saving from all of the bridges of characters running through it. The film rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed May 23, 2012 / Posted June 1, 2012

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