"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Cristeros (Fox, 2012)


I was beguiled by the box and poster into thinking this was a Western. The movie is called Outlaws in its DVD release and shows mounted men in broad-brimmed hats carrying guns. But as my old grandmother (born 1886) used to say, never judge a DVD by its cover. Well, she said book, actually, because they didn’t have DVDs then. And I think she was trying to warn me about certain girls. Still, her lesson may be universally applied.
Misleading DVD cover

Only a Western in the way that Mexican revolution pictures are Westerns, Pancho Villa stories, for example, or A Bullet for the General, that kind of thing, Cristeros, also known as For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada (any movie claiming to tell us the true story is usually guff) is set in Mexico in the 1920s when President Plutarco Eliás Calles, in office 1924 – 28, was enacting anti-clerical legislation and trying, as he saw it, to free his country from the strangling grip of the Catholic church. Arguably, an elected president was doing what was ordained in the 1917 constitution. What was wrong with that? Plenty, according to his opponents, who took up arms. This led to the so-called Cristero War, which can be seen, as Wikipedia tells us, either “as a major event in the struggle between Church and State dating back to the 19th century with the War of Reform”, or as “the last major peasant uprising in Mexico following the end of the military phase of the Mexican Revolution.” You choose.

President Plutarco Eliás Calles

However, it is clear that the film gives a very one-sided view. President Calles and the government are reprehensible and repressive, and the Cristeros are valiant and virtuous. The text of the opening screen sets the tone right away:

In response to these measures, civil organizations protest the new laws by peaceful means - the LNDR (League for Religious Liberty) is preeminent amongst these organizations. Taking up arms throughout throughout the country, brave men and women, called Cristeros, also join the fight for freedom.

So the film certainly wears its heart on its cassock sleeve. Roger Ebert said, “It is well-made, yes, but has such pro-Catholic tunnel vision I began to question its view of events.”

The movie was partially financed by the Knights of Columbus, so there may be a link.

In any case, it isn’t very good.

At 145 minutes it’s too long, not having the quality to sustain that. It was the most expensive film ever made in Mexico and it has a definite Cimino vibe. Make it as big as possible; that might mask the lack of quality. They wheeled in a few foreign stars, such as Peter O’Toole as an aged priest martyred by the ruthless Federales. He’s rather creepy, actually. The characters speak English throughout and the movie is clearly aimed at the English-speaking market, especially the US.

Fr. O'Toole

It was directed by Dean Wright, who had been 2nd Unit Director on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and on The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (I don’t know if that’s a qualification) and it was written by Michael Love, known for Hold it Like a Baby, which doubtless you thrilled to. I’m not sure how expert either was on Mexican history. The Austin Chronicle reviewer said, “The script by Michael Love is all over the place, introducing disparate characters right and left, then following their actions for a little bit before shifting focus to other characters, only to return to the previous characters once the viewer has forgotten their relevance.”

The Cristeros prospered mainly because they hired General Enrique Gorostieta Velarde as their leader. A hero of the revolution and supporter of Zapata, he was a fine strategist. He was in fact an atheist. He said he was fighting for “religious freedom” (though of course that means only freedom for Catholics; even the freedom not to believe seems to have been brushed aside).  Really Gorostieta Velarde seems to have taken the job for money. This is the part taken by Andy Garcia, who is rather good.

Garcia quite good

Ruben Blades plays President Calles. I used to like Mr. Blades’s music, I must say, back in the 80s. As an actor here he plays it straight according to the script, giving us a ruthless ruler ready to resort to murder and brutal repression to get his way.

Ruben Blades as Calles

The hero is a child, José (Mauricio Kuri, 15) whom Fr. O’Toole is training to become an altar boy and who sees the priest die under a firing squad, being so affected by it that he joins up with the Cristeros. This actor was curiously over-made up so that he looked like a character in a stage melodrama, with lipstick and rosy cheeks, once again ever so slightly creepy. Perhaps he is supposed to resemble a plaster saint. He suffers in an ersatz Via Dolorosa moment which the editors should have cut. Pope Francis declared José Sánchez del Río to be a saint in 2016 so I’m sure he was a good boy.

The real José Sánchez del Río and the reel one

I couldn’t get who half the characters were but there was a fighting priest with crossed bandoliers over his cassock who was quite racy. Then there are the American powers-that-be working behind the scenes to protect US economic interests – we get President Coolidge (Bruce McGill) and Secretary of State Kellogg (Roger Cudney), as well as Ambassador Sheffield (Jake Koenig). The US provides machine guns and planes. The pressure exerted on Coolidge to support the Cristeros by the Knights of Columbus is not shown, however.

Women play a brave part, carrying ammunition for the Cristeros (not always very carefully).

Some Cristeros

I didn’t like the music. Apparently James Horner re-used bits of Avatar and Stalingrad but it comes across as sentimental and grandiloquent by turns. I would go so far as to say it cheapens the action (which was already pretty tawdry).

There are various bits of homespun philosophy of a very unconvincing kind. Between Heaven and earth, between light and dark, between faith and sin [as if these were somehow opposites] lies only my heart. What does this even mean? Or Men will fire bullets but God will decide where they land. Yeah, right.

The real questions are not pursued and the movie was clearly aimed at a rather one-dimensional and sentimental American Christian market.

It avoided a one-revolver rating because of Garcia.


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