Although it has excellent moments of inspiration, particularly one powerful emotionally-wrought sequence with a fifteen-year-old boy, 'For Greater Glory' is mostly a hammy affair that works overtime pulling at the heartstrings and little at being a genuine look at the fight for religious freedom. It has all the makings of a sweeping epic and the breathtaking visual design in the tradition of John Ford, but the trappings of a melodrama trying to encompass more than it can chew.
At times, the two and half hour historical war drama feels more like an exhaustive promotional piece for religion and the church than the story of a people bravely battling against government tyranny. For all its potential to be an uplifting story on faith and its photographic beauty, thanks to cinematographer Eduardo Martinez Solares, the film has more histrionics going for it than it does historicity.
Largely based on the book by historian Jean Meyer, 'For Greater Glory' chronicles the events of a little-known and mostly forgotten civil war called the "Cristero War." Only a few years after the Mexican Revolution officially ended, the government at the time, under the leadership of President Plutarco Elías Calles (Rubén Blades doing his best at being the sniveling, heartless atheist the story desperately tries to portray him as), enforced anticlerical laws written into the country's constitution a decade early. They were provisions meant as retaliation of the Church's support for the dictatorship of Victoriano Huerta and their refusal to recognize the rebel cause. It's a sad and rather embarrassing event in Mexican history, which caused the death of thousands of innocent people, including women and children, simply for believing in a religion.
Coincidentally, my grandfather used to tell stories to his children about this relapse into war. He'd share fragmented memories of when he was a little boy growing up in the region where much of the uprising took place. When Federales (government soldiers) would enter his village, he and his sisters were forced to hide because the soldiers didn't discriminate against age or sex. All people of faith were persecuted equally. And the film shows this, including some sad images in the aftermath of a massacre of an entire pueblo and of dead rebels hanging from telephone poles.
The film has this potential for moments of poignancy, of generating a sense of grandeur and tear-jerking tragedy, but unfortunately fails at delivering the sort of powerful impact it aims to achieve. Much of this is due to Michael James Love's script trying to incorporate several major players of the war and wanting to make each of them into heroes, starting with General Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia giving an Oscar-bait performance that is surprisingly not half-bad) and Victoriano "El Catorce" Ramírez (Oscar Isaac in a one-note portrayal). Characters are generally archetypal and paper-thin, giving audiences little reason to care for them or their cause. That is, unless you're watching with a pre-existing sense of solidarity or if you're already a dyed-in-the-wool believer.
One aspect of the narrative worth admiring — and wishing filmmakers had done more to explore it further — is Gorostieta's role in the war. A well-known agnostic, even by those who bravely followed him into battle, the General's reasons for joining the struggle are admirable because he fought not for the religion but for the freedom of an individual to have one. I also would have loved to have seen more of his friendship with Father Vega (Santiago Cabrera), but their conversations feel very limited, used instead as a pro-Catholic opportunity to show a non-believer struggling with his faith, making way for sequence that should ideally inspire.
However, the only scene which actually succeeds at calling forth some tears comes from little Mauricio Kuri as José Sánchez del Río. At fifteen years of age, his devotion to his faith and the cause, which led to a Christ-like torture at the hands of a military captain before his execution, has grown into a thing of legend that continues to inspire many today. Making his English-speaking debut, Kuri is the only real revelation of the entire production.
Dean Wright, better known for his visual effects on 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy and 'The Chronicles of Narnia' films, also makes his directorial debut with 'For Greater Glory.' For the most part, he does a magnificent job at the helm, allowing much of Mexico's natural landscape and mountainous terrain to occupy the screen. He clearly takes inspiration from the films of John Ford — who by the way also made another western drama that takes place during the Cristero War called 'The Fugitive' and starring Henry Fonda. Unfortunately, his competence behind the camera is largely wasted on an unemotionally-involved historical drama that feels more like an epic history lesson.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Arc Entertainment brings 'For Greater Glory' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack. (There is also a single-disc available.) Housed inside a blue eco-cutout keepcase with a glossy slipcover, the Region Free, BD50 disc sits comfortably with a DVD-9 copy on the opposing panel. After several skippable trailers, viewers are taking to a main menu with full-motion clips and music.
The epic historical drama rides to Blu-ray with a highly-detailed, near-reference 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the picture is often jaw-dropping gorgeous with several razor-sharp scenes of the Mexican landscape. Foliage is crystal-clear; every pebble on the ground can be practically counted; and grain on tree barks and wooden planks can be perfectly made out. Tiny bumps and imperfections on the homes of villagers and the churches are clear and distinct. Facial complexions are revealing with lifelike textures and natural skin tones. With spot-on contrast, the sides of mountains and various rock formations in the far distance are crystal-clear and plainly visible.
The rest of the high-def presentation is lush and vibrant with an extensive array of colors. From the surrounding plant life and the costumes to the blood of soldiers, primaries light up the screen with energetic reds and lively greens, like the colors of the Mexican flag. Secondary hues provide a great deal of warmth and boldness, making the tiny pueblos seem welcoming and full of spirit. Black levels are luxurious and rich with excellent gradational detail and clarity within the darkest portions of the screen, providing the image with lots of depth. In the end, the film can be lacking some in story, but it comes with wonderful transfer.
'For Greater Glory' also debuts on Blu-ray with an excellent DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack with the potential to really excel in a few scenes. As we would expect from such recent release, rear activity comes alive during battle sequences. Gunfire, explosions and the screams of the wounded spread to all the speakers, creating a mostly satisfying soundfield that puts the listener right in the middle of combat. Unfortunately, these same scenes come at a noticeably higher decibel, ruining some of the design's effectiveness by easily localizing the sounds.
The lossless mix makes an even better impression in the fronts where the soundstage feels wide and welcoming. Discrete effects smoothly pan between the three channels, and dialogue is precise and intelligible in the center. Dynamics and acoustics are sharply-rendered with room-penetrating clarity, making every piece of shrapnel, bullet fired and scream perfectly heard. James Horner's score is well-balanced and detailed, broadening the image with splendid warmth and fidelity. Low bass is plenty powerful and nicely responsive, providing each gunshot, explosion and stomp of a horse's hoof with a snappy punch.
Beautifully shot and orchestrated by first-time director Dean Wright, 'For Greater Glory' comes with a great deal of potential but sadly fails at capturing the emotional tone to inspire all viewers. With a story about religious freedom and the right to have faith, the script tries to represent the major players of the uprising without ever focusing on one. The Blu-ray comes with exceptional picture quality and an excellent audio presentation. Supplements are scarce, so for those with an interest in history and this particular event, you might want to give it a rent first before purchasing.