‘For Greater Glory’ Falls Short Despite Visible Efforts
By STEWART SMITH
There are some movies that I have a really difficult time being down on, especially when they try so very hard. "For Greater Glory" is one such movie.
"For Greater Glory" tells the story of the Cristero War in Mexico in the late 1920s. When the Mexican government effectively outlawed the Catholic church from operating within the country, it sparked a rebellion, eventually culminating in an armed revolution against the government. It's an event that seems to have gone largely ignored by the history books (and thusly the public consciousness), and if I hadn't sat through a two-and-a-half-hour movie about it I'd likely have gone a great deal longer having never even heard about it.
I have no way of knowing how historically accurate the film is, but it at least does a worthy job of trying to tell this mostly untold and forgotten story. The film's biggest problem is that it tries to tell a little too much.
There are no less than four (possibly five, depending on how you look at it) separate stories at play, each of them interesting in its own right and worthy of attention. There's Jose (Mauricio Kuri), a mischievous young boy who, thanks to the brief guidance and tutelage of an old priest (Peter O'Toole), eventually finds himself wanting to fight as a Cristero. There's Victoriano "El Catorce" Ramirez (Oscar Isaac), a hard-headed freedom fighter famous for single-handedly killing 14 enemy soldiers who eventually becomes a general in the Cristeros army. Enrique Velarde (Andy Garcia) is an atheist and retired Mexican general who is recruited by the underground resistance to lead the rebel army. Then there's the actual underground movement, fostering secret communications as well as smuggling ammunition and supplies to the rebels. Finally there is the diplomatic outreach to President Plutarco Elias Calles (Ruben Blades), led by Dwight Morrow (Bruce Greenwood), the United States' ambassador to Mexico.
Most of these threads could have likely supported its own film, so it's an odd feeling when the story at large simultaneously feels overstuffed and yet curiously thin. There are so many characters and threads vying for attention that we never get enough time devoted to each of them for it to feel sufficiently fleshed out.
The idea of an atheist soldier agreeing to lead a decisively religious uprising is interesting, especially as Velarde slowly evolves in his motivation for fighting. His relationship with Jose as a surrogate father could have provided a significant emotional anchor for the film (and indeed, this is what director Dean Wright aims for), but again, we're given too little. Jose's story comes closest to hitting the right emotional notes, at least, but it seems that every time we're about to be able to dig a little deeper into his character, Wright cuts away to an unrelated thread. The lack of focus is, to say the least, maddening at times.
This is Wright's directorial debut and it shows. Wright has the hunger to tell a huge story and he wants to do it in an epic fashion. His aim clearly was to craft a film that felt like an "Old Hollywood" epic, with lots of extras, big battles and an emotional story as the film's rudder. He swings for the fences, to be sure, and it's admirable what he aims for. It just becomes painfully obvious that Wright lacks the overall chops to successfully bring together those elements. The result is a film that more often than not looks and feels like a TV movie. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised in the least to learn that this was at one point intended to be a multi-part TV miniseries that got shaved down to feature film length.
Despite its problems, though, it's still difficult to hate "For Greater Glory."
At the very least, Wright assembled a smart cast to do the heavy lifting. Andy Garcia is a solid actor and he's got the presence required to pull off the stoicism that Velarde seems to require. With a stronger director Garcia could have perhaps been something truly memorable here, but he's a decent anchor for what's necessary here. Peter O'Toole's role is there and gone, sadly, but he makes the few moments he has really shine.
Meanwhile, Oscar Isaac continues to show why he's one of the best, most underrated young actors out there. The man is an absolute chameleon and it took a good 10 minutes before I even realized it was him as Ramirez. That seems to be par for the course for an Isaac performance, though. His work in "Robin Hood" is worlds different from "Drive" as it is from "Sucker Punch" and so forth. Part of me hopes for him to at last get that one big breakout role that leads to the moviegoing public at large to appreciate his obvious talents, but the other part hopes that he doesn't simply so he can more easily move from role to role and disappear into them the way he does. Regardless, he's quite good here and feels on a level above what most everyone else puts forth.
I can't quite recommend "For Greater Glory," nor can I say that you should avoid seeing it. It's an interesting enough story that should you chose to watch it, the freshness of it will help propel you through it even when the film seems to drag. It's an admirable effort at the very least, even if it never quite connects.
Stewart Smith is the Entertainment Editor for the
Tyler Morning Telegraph
. Contact him at 903-596-6301 or by e-mail at email@example.com