"For Greater Glory" is a meandering, malnourished epic of a forgotten Mexican civil war, the one after the Mexican revolution that made Pancho Villa famous. This period piece, partly financed by the Catholic Knights of Columbus, is about the Cristeros War, when Catholic priests and peasants took up arms againstMexico's revolutionary government's efforts to repress the Catholic Church.
It's an arch, preachy and violent movie aimed at the faithful, people who won't grimace or roll their eyes at every character who declares, "God save us from these heathens!"
In 1920s Mexico, the leftist administration of President Plutarco Calles (portrayed by Ruben Blades) takes Marx's maxim that "religion is the opiate of the masses" seriously. It goes after the influence of the Catholic Church. Like the Republicans in Spain, they see the Church, aligned with the conservative status quo, as a weight on the population. Calles introduces "reforms" and edicts ranging from the practical — taking church dogma out of the schools, especially science class — to the more alarming — mass deportations of foreign priests, violence against priests who refuse to leave.
A coalition of church officials and reactionaries left over from the losing side of the recent civil war rebels. They call themselves "Cristeros," and the revolt rages off and on for years. Priests such as Father "General" Vega (Santiago Cabrera) take up arms when priests such as Father Christopher (Peter O'Toole, moving in his death scene) are executed.
But as the revolt roils the country, the Cristeros see they need a leader. They turn to a frankly agnostic hero of the Mexican revolution, General Gorostieta (Andy Garcia). For reasons both righteous and mercenary, he and his wife (Eva Longoria) realize that he can make a difference for the disorganized Cristeros.
Visual effects specialist-turned-director Dean Wright, working from a Michael Love ("Gaby: A True Story") script, manages the combat scenes — raids on villages, trains — well enough. But he has no sense of pace and has a hard time keeping the various factions distinct. And if he can't keep them straight, what hope do we have? The film lurches between firefights and arguments over the dinner table as Garcia's Gorostieta mulls over the offer to lead the Cristeros. He still cuts a fine figure on a horse, but it's a generally dispassionate turn, not helped by the confusion surrounding Garcia's performance.
Any movie set in a civil war or revolution is going to take sides, and like the Opus Dei-backed "There Be Dragons," set during the Spanish Civil War, this one certainly has. Faced with movies from "Blue Like Jazz," with its "Abstinence makes the Church grow fondlers" bumper stickers, and"The Three Stooges"dolling up nuns in skimpy swimsuits, church backers can be expected to attempt a little cinematic push-back. But they need to make better, less laughably propagandistic movies about recent instances of Catholic martyrdom.
If you're tackling a subject this complex, you need to be more careful. You need to aim higher in hiring behind-the-camera talent. If you're making a movie aimed at people of a particular faith, you might want to cut it below an R rating. And if you're going to attempt an epic, you need to spend more money than this.
'For Greater Glory' -- 1 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for war violence and some disturbing images)
Running time: 2:23
Opens: FridayCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times