for greater glory

Two weeks ago, I saw an advance screening of the newly-released movie For Greater Glory. Here’s my take on the film:

Andy Garcia delivers a solid performance as a man transformed by the mission that he takes up. In its best moments, the complex story of the Mexican Civil War travels alongside the narrative of the film’s main characters with a decent balance of nuance and sense of purpose. The dialogue, on the other hand, is so heavy on purpose as to exclude nearly all subtext.

The movie didn’t do a skilful job of letting the audience know whose story it was and why we should care in the first 30 minutes. There isn’t much work for the viewer to do — there’s a lot more telling than showing — other than the challenge of establishing who the minor characters are and how they relate to the rest of the cast. Many scenes feel more like set pieces for the stage than cinematic — quite a few scenes started too soon and lasted too long — and the over-long second act meanders without a strong narrative through-line. With some disciplined editing, it’s a story that could have been more compelling at 100 minutes than at its present 137.

That said, the movie does gain steam in the last 40 minutes as we finally know and care enough about the characters to feel authentically moved by the movie’s climax. A beautiful score by James Horner dominates most scenes, but its over-use means that, ultimately, it seems less purposeful and theme-driven than it might have otherwise.

I think the movie is definitely worth seeing for its presentation of an unfamiliar piece of Mexican-American history not far removed from our own day in either time or relevance.

It was better than There Be Dragons, and in a totally different league from Facing the Giants. In the moments when it wasn’t beautiful, it made me long for beauty. (Absence makes the heart grow fonder.) But enough of the back-handed praise….

I should probably see For Greater Glory again with consideration of its moral depth in mind, but as I think back on the narrative, I don’t think there was much complexity in it. Some of the conflicts were far too easily resolved; one that comes to mind is a scene between Peter O’Toole, who plays an elderly foreign-born priest, and the young protagonist. O’Toole’s character quickly determines what his role will be vis-a-vis the conflict without much deliberation or any kind of struggle. Even from a cinematic point-of-view, the lack of conflict becomes problematic. I felt carried along by the narrative, rather passively, without engaging difficult questions.

Especially in the early moments of the film, there were moments that were supposed to be emotionally engaging, but because one didn’t know the characters well enough, or what was at stake for them, I experienced something I can only call an emotional Doppler effect: one only understood the significance of the moments after they had passed. The audience wasn’t allowed into the fray of the moral dilemmas, but left a spectator… and the drama of history carried the story forward without really inviting the audience in. I’m not describing it well, but it was a story problem, to my way of thinking.

Also, the antagonists in the film were broadly drawn scapegoats, with little sense of their motivation (with the exception, perhaps, of Calles himself at certain moments).

In my mind, it is at once the most opportune and inopportune time for this movie’s message about religious freedom. Having listened to the objections of many people to religious freedom concerns vis-a-vis public policy in recent months, I can safely say that the movie does not answer any of the objections, which in a sense is no fault of its own, since it was produced long before the battle lines of the present year had really been drawn. But it adds nothing really thoughtful to that conversation.

I am ready to admit I wanted too much from this movie. Given the hostility to religious liberty currently on display in America, by many in the culture, and no small number of Catholics (including the Secretary of Health and Human Services), I wanted something that would trouble people out of their complacency… I wanted an awakening for those most glib about the need for religion to go back behind its closed doors and stop bothering the secularist vision of progress. I just don’t think that anyone without sympathies for the cause of religious liberty would come out of the theater with anything resembling a change of heart on this issue. Instead, people could come away feeling even more smug about the destructive power of religious fervor.

The movie does not so much carry a theme as it does a bumper sticker. A bumper sticker is a cheer raised on behalf of a cause it already believes in. A theme is something that has to be argued, and makes an appeal to the mind to work through a paradox and thus can speak to both the believer and the doubtful, along lines that are truly universal. And so, in that sense, I think the movie has limited audience. Although the action sequences (and in particular the sound design… bullets never sounded so good passing from one ear to the other) may cover a multitude of other considerations for audiences already primed to cheer.

Bumper sticker: Religious freedom is good.

Theme: Religious freedom protects the deepest core of what it means to be human.

For Greater Glory offered the bumper sticker, but wasn’t prepared for the hard work of delivering the theme. And so the glory of this film will not be so great: it will not be able to earn artistic credibility with the non-convinced. (See this review, for instance.)

Any Catholic defenders of religious liberty who might interpret this half-hearted review as a sign that I am a traitor to the cause of religious liberty, I will ask you this: Will you please spare an hour sometime to watch this YouTube presentation  by Barbara Nicolosi? Many thanks.

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