Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Tragedy of Mexico's Cristiada

Cristero Soldiers in the 1920's
The feature film "For Greater Glory" is showing in Juneau till the end of the week. (Thanks to a Cathedral parishioner who worked to bring this movie to Juneau).

 I went to a screening last evening to discover to my surprise that the best part of this deeply disappointing movie was to be found at the end, in the credits.  The filmmakers matched photos of the various actors with the real-life men and women (many of whom were martyred by the Mexican authorities in the 1920's ) that they portrayed in the movie.  It was quite moving to look at them and to reflect on the costly, and for some, ultimate sacrifices they made for their faith.  This was underscored by a brief snippet of (presumably)archival footage of the execution of the martyr Fr. Miguel Pro SJ, who, while not a Cristero, was arrested and put to death for his underground ministry as a priest.

Unfortunately, the film was an overall narrative and aesthetic failure.  The filmmakers, with the best of intentions, tried to create a sweeping epic (think "Lawrence of Arabia") but only succeeded in stitching together stereotypical scene after stereotypical scene (taken from a century of Westerns and war movies), through which a parade of two-dimensional heroes and bad guys (wearing the requistite white or black sombreros or the equivilent) entered and exited, guns blazing and banners flying. 

The film failed for a number of reasons.  To begin with it is pretty much impossible for us as modern people, after the horrific carnage of the First and Second World Wars, to regard war, (even a war like the Cristero Rebellion that was a desperate act of self-defense), as anything other than a tragedy.  Despite the occasional nod to how war brings out the worst in those who participate in it, the protagonists were depicted as epic, if doomed heros.   Then there was the failure of the filmmakers (or writers) to understand or explicate the perspectives of those who supported the government  and why they fervently believed that the modernization of Mexico required the repression of the Catholic Church. 

You would never know from the film that the conflict was not so much over closing churches and expelling foreign priests (although this certainly happened and was the immediate casus belli) but was a struggle over the central role of Catholicism in Mexican society and control of who would educate Mexico's youth.  Calles and his supporters sought to marginalize Catholicism because they believed the Church was the most formidable opponent they faced in their project of modernizing Mexican society. They viewed the Church in much the same way that contemporary modernizers view conservative Islamists who resist attempts to bring the benefits of education, literacy and greater social freedom to excluded groups (such as women and girls).  In rural Mexico conservative clerics and their supporters strongly (and in some places during the Cristero rebellion, violently) resisted compulsory primary education which promoted national, secular values and forcibly displaced the existing religious educational system, which was limited in scope and centered on rural parishes. 

In addition to the cultural conflict, the Church resisted the uncompensated confiscation of church estates and monastic lands by 19th century liberal governments and after the 1910 revolution. Church leadership in many parts of rural Mexico sided with other large landowners to oppose the government's redistribution of Church property to landless peasant farmers.     

I note this background not to overlook or justify in any way the persecution of the Church by the anti-clerical national government of Plutarcio Calles and various state governments (some of which were even more violent and destructive than the federales)  but to draw attention to the way in which the filmmakers flattened out the complexity and contradictions of the actual historical conflict.  You would never know from the film that Mexico was a fiercely nationalistic, but deeply divided society that had just come through a decade of revolutionary violence, had a strong and militant trade union movement and was attempting to industrialize and modernize while delivering on promises of land reform made to the campesino majority living in the countryside.  Or that the interests and goals of the Vatican, the bishops, parish priests and the urban and rural faithful were often in sharp conflict.  Or that just about everyone involved on both sides of the conflict, were at least nominally Catholics.   

All of which simply underscores the most serious problem with the film, it's not genuinely interested in Mexico and its history.  It's an American(as in Norte Americano) film that uses a Mexican setting and charactors to hold up for our admiration (rightly) the heroic witness of the martyrs and highlight conservative American beliefs about religious liberty.  Which is too bad, because the largely-forgotten tragedy of the Cristeros needs to be told in all of its complexity, moral ambiguity, and heroism.

Sadly, "For Greater Glory" fails to do that.               

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