If "For Greater Glory" were a person, it would be wearing two different socks. It is a scattered mess, as earnest as a folk song, but like a folk song that goes on for two hours and 23 minutes. Not only does it never justify its epic length, but "For Greater Glory" gets even the small things wrong.
Five seconds into the opening credits, the soundtrack starts telling you that this is the greatest story ever told, and it never stops telling you. At one point -- this is amazing -- the camera moves slowly up a hill, and when it reaches the top and looks over the valley, the sound track goes into a rhapsodic swell ... before you even know what you're looking at! It's one thing for a soundtrack to tell you how to feel about something, and quite another for a soundtrack to tell you how to feel about something that you don't even know about.
The first sign that something is amiss comes just as the movie is starting. Right after the credits, a paragraph fills the screen and explains the story: It's 1926 in Mexico. Their president is trying to secularize the country, and there are people opposed to him. From a U.S. perspective, it's difficult to know which side the movie favors. It's only when the Mexican president (Ruben Blades) starts killing priests and slaughtering parishioners that we get the idea that he's a tyrant. But these are precious minutes lost. Why go out of your way to explain something if only to make it more confusing?
"For Greater Glory" tells the story of Cristero War, a three-year armed struggle over the Mexican government's attempt to stamp out the Catholic Church. It's a big story, but ultimately it reveals itself as one not really suited to cinematic treatment. There are too many moral gradations, and the tale really can't be encapsulated as the struggle of one person or set of people to accomplish a goal.
Knowing this, the filmmakers pull a bait and switch. They pretend to be telling the story of a glorious battle taking place in late 1920s Mexico, but then they shift gears and offer the movie as an internal moral journey. This renders most of the action senseless, but then the actual history was anticlimactic, anyway.
Andy Garcia, as the rebel general, is the best thing in the film, not because of his acting -- director Dean Wright leaves him high and dry with a number of unfortunate shots and awkward moments -- but because of his essence. He captures the physicality and the psychology of a military man of the early 20th century. Bruce Greenwood, as the American ambassador, has a handful of good scenes, but they're undermined by the role's impenetrable moral ambiguity.
But then, how seriously should we take a historical epic that depicts President Calvin Coolidge as chubby and avuncular?
"For Greater Glory"
MPAA rating: R
Grade: One star out of four
Running time: 143 minutes
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