The subtitle to these pensamientos should probably be, “Why I Like the First Real Latino Movie Ever.”
I’m writing of course, about the recently released film, For Greater Glory, directed by Dean Wright, and starring Andy García, Eva Longoria, Rubén Blades, and other notable actors. Like many Latinos, I feel nervous when I hear there’s been a film made about Latin American history, in English, with Latino and Latin American actors. In fact, I get nervous when there is a new TV sitcom that promises to feature Latino actors in true-to-life situations. I want my people to do good! That’s the simplest reason.
I have every reason to fear that the production will have been written, produced and directed by non-Latinos, and is bound to have moments of severe, gut-wrenching embarrassment as scenes are tailored and translated to be explainable to a non-Latino audience. It’s the cringing factor.
But also, like many first generation Latinos, I look at the promise of actors, artists, and writers of Latin American origin and I shake my head in wonder at the range, and the staggering talent. So, let me get into this story: La Cristiada. The period of time post-Mexican Revolution. Los Cristeros. I read about the Mexican Revolution on my own, prompted by the powerful impression of reading Carlos Fuentes’ La muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz), in college. Not being a historian, what I studied on my own was very much connected with my literary understanding of the complexity of the revolution, and certainly inspired by my Latin American fervor and solidarity. But years later, while I in turn taught the book to my students, I began to read more about the meaning of La Cristiada because it seemed to be a piece of history that was missing from my education– sorely missing– and from popular knowledge as well.
What I gathered from my imperfect research, however, more than information, was a sense of being utterly perplexed. On the one hand I cringed from the facts of a popular rebellion that seemed reactionary, and on the other hand I felt so distant from a temporal experience of Mexican history. How could it be possible that the wholesale murder of Mexicans, peasants, indigenous, and mestizos alike, could coincide with the murder of low-level clergy, with the expulsion of foreign bishops, with the destruction of village churches, but also with the civil war provoked by the government and violence carried out on both sides– the Cristeros as well as the soldiers?
I think more than once I pondered what on earth would the rebellion expect to obtain from defending the church. It seemed more complex than the revolution itself, which had placed the well-shaven sons of the oligarchy (like the character of Artemio Cruz) fighting alongside intractable bandoleros like Pancho Villa, and indigenous leaders like Zapata. I do confess to scratching my head and delving once more into the safety of literary pursuits, and activism of other kinds.
But here is a film that left me thinking there is a curious subtext that has been created by the blending of the different Latino actors, the facts of history, the translation of these facts into “KMN”-type English dialog, and the post-post-modern reality of creating narratives for popular consumption in 2012. As I said, I went to the film expecting to cringe, and I did, but I also felt my brain smoking, sizzling, analyzing at top speed the amazing conjunctions of art, popular fodder, propaganda, hubris, brilliant stuff and unintended telenovela basura that was happening onscreen. Besides me, there was only one Latino family with six kids at this 4:10 pm showing of For Greater Glory in Times Square, a total of 12 people in the audience. No one was eating any popcorn or texting. We all drew in our breath when Peter O’Toole, playing a village priest, struggles to pronounce one of the boys’ names– Joselito– and comes up with Hose-elly-toe. We all (I think) smiled when Eva Longoria sauntered in her 1920s white lace dress and señora hairdo. I know we all snickered with satisfaction when Presidente Rubén Blades stopped speaking labored movie-English to lean over and ask his aide, “¿Cómo se llama el gringo éste?”
As I watched, the writer part of me kept tussling with the obstacles the screenwriters must have faced; the Chilean part of me kept recognizing the deep rift of class, race, and caste that is our legacy as Latin Americans, and the Nuyorkina part of me kept whispering, oy vey, oy vey iz mir. It is really beyond achievable to make a sweeping narrative like this into a film, but the tiny film-critic part of me truly believes that it would have been better in Spanish with subtitles, with the relevant indigenous terms included, with the parts where the gringo Ambassador and Peter O’Toole were involved, mostly in English. For one thing, one can’t really get a sense of the layers of loyalty and respect, the nuances of class subservience, or the religious fervor that is a symbol for the hope of a people who are cruelly oppressed by trying to translate– or squeeze– the complexity into one level.
What emerges is a story that owes quite a bit to the perspective of the viewer. One probably does not need to know the complete history of U.S.-Mexico relations to understand the double-edged sword that Presidente Calles was using when he called for U.S. help in quashing the rebellion. Blades plays this role to the hilt, in a sharp portrayal that reveals the intelligence of the actor as he buffoons and ridicules the U.S. Ambassador. “Chocolate is the gift of Mexico to the world,” he quips, as he serves his guest a dinner of Mole Poblano. A moment later, the ambassador trades machine guns and bomber aircraft for the Mexican armed forces in exchange for oil rights. The sight of strangled men and boys dangling from posts along the train tracks sickens the sensitive gringo, but he recovers his composure and forges a deal with Rome that will force Presidente Calles to compromise. The portrayal of the Mexican government as barbaric is the only reason the world turns against the regime. The strange fruit dangling by the thousands, dead peasants, Indians, men, women and children, as well as decimated Mexican soldiers littering the land, would not have been sufficient to stop the civil war.
Somehow, in the clumsy weaving of backstory and overacting, the importance of this rebellion emerges in the film, and I think the credit goes as much to the cast as the writers and the direction. The incandescence of Andy Garcia’s work as General Gorostieta carries the central thread. There is real chemistry between his characterization of military leadership and the charismatic masculine charm of El Catorce, the revolutionary bandido played by Oscar Isaac, for example. Eva Longoria’s faithful but silent Catholic wife role is intended as an archetype for an upper-class Mexican woman of the time, yet she plays it with intensity and dignity. And, as archetypes for an entire people, perhaps the rebellion of the Cristeros shows us as Latin Americans that this interstitial war represents- sadly- the limited choice of our nations’ multitudes. For the Cristeros, the church that stole, raped and pillaged a continent (I do not exaggerate) is also the source of the only solace, sometimes, the only asylum given by the low clergy, to our disenfranchised. To offer succor to the rebellion then, as later during the dictadura in Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, Honduras, is the only option to perhaps, eventually, save people and not just souls, spirits, or freedom of religious faith. Without having read any of the publicity for this movie, these are some of my random thoughts.
But, with a note of humor I have to say that this time, most of the cringing I did was when padre Peter O’Toole bends down to kiss the poor little kid on the forehead with such overblown solemnity it’s just over the top. A phenomenal actor, yes, but here, a terrible choice.
- ‘For Greater Glory’ Dramatizes Mexican War (hispanicallyspeakingnews.com)
- Eva Longoria: ‘Latinos are still under-represented in TV and film’ (digitalspy.co.uk)
- Movie Review: ‘For Greater Glory’ (theepochtimes.com)
- Lesser ‘Glory’ for war epic (variety.com)
- ‘For Greater Glory’ Traces Mexico’s Cristero War – New York Times (movies.nytimes.com)
- In ‘For Greater Glory’ Andy Garcia leads the charge as a forgotten freedom fighter (kansascity.com)