Worth Watching in June/July 2012

Like many Americans, I didn’t know much about the 1920s Cristero war, or Cristiada, for most of my life. Until I began to do some background reading in preparation for For Greater Glory (opening June 1), I was largely unaware of Mexico’s long and enduring legacy of anti-religious government policy — a legacy going back to the 1850s and lingering even today, as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out during his recent trip to Mexico.

Ironically, religious liberty in Mexico appears to be expanding even as new challenges to religious freedom are mounted in the United States and elsewhere in the Western world. For Greater Glory’s theme of religious liberty couldn’t come at a more timely moment. Andy Garcia stars as General Enrique Gorostieta Velarde, an unlikely leader of the Cristero rebels, given his past career in the Federal Army — and an even more unlikely champion of religious freedom, given his lifelong agnosticism.

Though the film softens the historical Gorostieta’s contempt for religion and heightens his support of religious freedom, Gorostieta did oppose the current government’s draconian anti-religious policies and favored government toleration of religion. He fought for the Cristeros partly for the generous stipend they paid him, partly for the challenge, partly out of principle, and partly also, perhaps, for his wife Tulita (Eva Longoria), a devout Catholic whom we see raising their children in the faith with Gorostieta’s consent.

For Greater Glory is one of Mexico’s most expensive and ambitious films ever, with a solid cast including Oscar Isaac (The Nativity Story) as the intimidating gunslinger Victoriano Ramirez, Bruce Greenwood as the conflicted U.S. ambassador Dwight Morrow, and Peter O’Toole as a noble old English priest who inspires young José Sánchez del Rio (Mexico City native Mauricio Kuri), a teenager who will ultimately be tortured and killed for the Cristero cause. (Sánchez was beatified in 2005 by Pope Benedict, along with Anacleto González Flores, a pacifist lawyer played in a cameo by Bella’s Eduardo Verástegui.)

Making his directorial debut, visual effects supervisor Dean Wright (who worked on the Lord of the Rings and Narnia films as well as Titanic) is up to the challenge of the story’s epic scale. Rugged desert landscapes, historic mountain pueblos, and well-crafted sets create an authentic sense of historic saga, and Wright handles the action and battle scenes with a clarity rare these days.

The ensemble story takes a while to jell, and the schematic storytelling that affects many Christian productions is in evidence: Every executed priest dies a heroic martyr’s death, calmly forgiving his killers; every federale troop is a remorseless monster, butchering priests and children with equal aplomb. The pious take on history is at times dubious: If there’s any evidence that an infamous atrocity in the career of the notorious clerical Cristero José Reyes Vega was an accident, as depicted here, I’ve not heard of it.

Yet in contrast to the generally unengaging There Be Dragons, set in the midst of the Spanish Civil War without offerring the slightest sense of the shape of its historical context, For Greater Glory follows key events in the Cristiada closely enough to offer at least a Hollywood-style outline of the conflict and of the underlying issues. It’s a not a perfect film, but it’s a worthwhile one, and in many ways a significant step forward for faith-based filmmaking.

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On Home Video
Three from Studio Ghibli

Walt Disney releases Blu-ray/DVD combo editions of a trio of delightful studio Ghibli animated films. This spring’s The Secret World of Arrietty is a lovely take on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers suitable for even the youngest viewers. Then there’s Castle in the Sky, a rollicking steampunk swashbuckler that’s part Star Wars, part Raiders of the Lost Ark. Finally, Whisper of the Heart is as gentle as its title, a sensitive, naturalistic coming-of-age tale about an introverted young girl with dreams of being a writer. (Kids and up)

The Artist
This year’s Best Picture Oscar winner is a lovingly made valentine to the silent age with echoes of Singin’ in the Rain and A Star is Born. Jean Dujardin channels Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Gene Kelly as a silent-era heartthrob who struggles to adjust to the new era of sound, and Bérénice Bejo is winsome as the flapper ingenue who comes to outshine him. The downbeat second half drags, but on balance it’s a charming if somewhat overrated film. (Teens and up)

The Gold Rush
The Criterion Collection releases the definitive edition of Charlie Chaplin’s comic masterpiece, including both the original 1925 silent film and Chaplin’s 1942 reworking of the film in a quasi-sound edition, with the intertitles replaced with humorous, documentary-like narration. Kids may recognize classic gags they’ve seen in Looney Tunes and The Muppets. (Kids and up)

Film & Television
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