Okay people, we need to have a little talk. And by “people” I mean all of you who keep saying—on Facebook, on Twitter, on blogs, et.al—how much you “like” the movie For Greater Glory.
After months and months of hearing how I had to see the thing, I finally sat down and watched it.
And I have concluded a whole lot of you out there don’t know what it means to say you “like” a movie.
Stay your protests a minute and hear me out.
When those among you who claim to “like” For Greater Glory make such statements, I think what you really mean is that you like seeing a movie where the Catholic Church is the good guy and not the big bad boogeyman. I agree. It’s a real nice change. Go team.
Or maybe what you mean is that you like certain scenes in the movie…priests dying for Christ, boys holding fast to the Faith, sinful souls turning to Christ. Or again, maybe it’s seeing religious freedom championed. Or learning more about martyrs. Or seeing Eduardo Verastegui on screen.
Again, on all counts, agreed. All those things are indeed likeable.
But the movie itself? As a work of art? As a story? As a morally coherent tale? That people could like it on those grounds, I have a hard time believing.*
As for why? Well, not simply because of the bad editing, clichéd dialogue, and mediocre acting. Those things are too common to be remarkable. Rather, it was mostly about the storytelling…or lack thereof.
You see, because the movie makers had no idea what story they were telling beyond “The Christeros War,” they ended up telling no story at all. Their vision was so epic, so “from 30,000 feet,” that they ended up with more characters and plotlines than they knew what to do with, leaving no time for character development, let alone for the audience to form an emotional attachment to the people dying left and right on screen. Heck, during the first hour of the movie, I wasn’t even sure who was who. How do you weep over someone’s death when you’re too busy asking the person next to you, “So, who is that again?”
If the producers really wanted to tell the whole kit and caboodle tale of the Christeros war, then they should have made a mini-series, a nice leisurely 12 hour mini-series on the scale of Thornbirds. As it was, it felt like they did just that, only to have someone say at the last minute, “Sorry kids, we only have 143 minutes now. Just give me the highlight real.”
Since we all know a mini-series wasn’t realistic, a better option would have been to pick just one story to tell: the little boy Jose’s, or the gun-toting priest’s, or the pacifist lawyer’s, or the general’s, or the random chick with bullets who kept popping up at key events but then disappeared from the movie three-quarters through.
Not only would telling one story as opposed to 20 have allowed the moviemakers to actually tell a story, it also would have given them the time needed to address the ethical complexities of the Christeros War. As it was, they glossed over the pointed moral problems of priests’ bearing arms, gun fights in churches, disobedience to Church authorities, and the whole idea that it’s okay for Catholics to deprive another person of their right to life in order to defend our right to religious liberty.
‘Cause you know what? It’s not. Those things aren’t okay. They’re actually big bad no-no’s.
Priests who bear arms are not heroes. Christians firing weapons before the Blessed Sacrament is gravely sinful. And when the Church says it’s not okay to be in open rebellion against the government, it’s not okay to be in open rebellion against the government.
Above all, while having the sacraments taken away is a fate worse than death, our death is the death in question, not the death of the person doing the taking. A Catholic should rather die than live without Jesus in the Eucharist. A Catholic should not rather kill someone than live without Jesus in the Eucharist. There is a difference.
That’s not to say that war is always wrong or that there are no cases where taking up arms to defend the persecution of others isn’t at times necessary. It is, however, to say that such decisions come at a cost, and glossing over that cost is as dangerous as it is wrong. And that’s a wrong I’m afraid the makers of For Greater Glory commit in spades.*
Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but if Christ were standing around watching soldiers shout Viva Christo Rey right before they took aim at other human beings, I don’t think he’d be cheering. I think he’d be weeping.
The early Christians seemed to think the same. Sts. Peter and Paul, Ignatius and Polycarp, Perpetua and Felicity—those who knew Christ best and lived in the times closest to him, didn’t mobilize an army to keep Christians out of the arena. They didn’t run around shouting Vivant Christus Rex. Rather they prayed, they loved, and they imitated Christ in all things, even unto the point of death.
And it worked. It took a while, but it worked. The persecution ended, neither the Faith nor the faithful were compromised, and Christ was glorified.
I know, in times of persecution, such things aren’t always self-evident. For those standing by and watching as priests are killed and churches shuttered, it’s much harder to know what the right response is. Which is why I trust that God shows great mercy to those who make the wrong calls.
That, at least partly, is evident in the fact that the Church has beatified and canonized martyrs who chose the path of peaceful resistance but also provided aid to the Christero rebels. The Church understands the complexities at hand for those on the ground.
And so should we. Looking back we should see how difficult their situation was, and we shouldn’t diminish those difficulties by explaining them away with five-second sound bites. Nor should we glamorize their wrong choices. Not today.
With Catholics in America facing one of the most significant infringements of our religious liberty in this nation’s history, we need more than caricatures, clichés, and cheap propaganda. We need clarity, inspiration, and true guidance. But the former, not the latter is all the makers of For Greater Glory gave us.
With better editing, more powerful story-telling, and above all greater moral clarity, For Greater Glory could have been a good movie. Heck, it could have been a great movie. It could have been a timely and cautionary tale against using violence to defend religious liberty, as well as a reminder to the faithful and unfaithful alike of the ugliness of war, the beauty of faith, and the value of religious freedom.
But it wasn’t. Instead, regardless of how good the movie-makers intentions were, For Greater Glory was just another bad movie in a long line of bad movies being peddled to the Catholic masses—worse even because of its sophomoric morality. And pretending otherwise? Well, that’s not helping anyone, least of all the Church.
*For clarity and charity’s sake, I’ve tweaked one part starred above, and added the paragraph starred above.
Emily Stimpson is a Contributing Editor to “Our Sunday Visitor” and the author of “The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years,” where she dishes on the Church’s teachings about women, marriage, sex, work, beauty, suffering, and more.