Bishops Find Modern Allegories In Mexican War Film

The film For Greater Glory opens Friday around the country. It's the story of the Mexican government's campaign against the Roman Catholic Church in the 1920s. Some Catholic leaders say it's evidence of the threat the U.S. government poses to the church now with issues like birth control that they say threaten religious freedom.

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A new movie about a largely forgotten war in Mexico has been pulled into an ongoing political debate here in the U.S. "For Greater Glory" is about a bloody conflict from the 1920s between Roman Catholics and the government that tried to oppress them. As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, critics have not been kind, but Catholic bishops in the U.S. are enthusiastically backing the film.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: "For Greater Glory" tells the story of the Cristeros, Mexicans who fought against President Plutarco Calles, whose regime persecuted Catholics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FOR GREATER GLORY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Every foreign-born bishop, priest or minister will be deported immediately.

BLAIR: Catholics across Mexico protested on the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FOR GREATER GLORY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) There will be a five-year jail sentence for any priest who criticizes the government.

BLAIR: Eventually, Mexican Catholics took up arms.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FOR GREATER GLORY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) And men will fire bullets, but God decides where they land, (unintelligible).

JULIA YOUNG: There was great brutality on both sides.

BLAIR: Julia Young is an assistant professor of history at Catholic University who has studied the Cristero war.

YOUNG: People were hung from telegraph wires. There were priests that were summarily shot and killed. There's a famous image of a priest named Miguel Preaux(ph) who according to all accounts did not take up arms in the conflict was nevertheless who was executed by a firing squad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FOR GREATER GLORY")

UNDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) (Unintelligible). You must hide.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Hide? You do not hide from God.

BLAIR: "For Greater Glory" was filmed in Mexico and stars Andy Garcia, Ruben Blades, Eva Longoria and Peter O'Toole. It was directed by Dean Wright.

DEAN WRIGHT: To have grown up basically my - almost my whole life in the Southwest and never heard it, I was a little dismayed by that.

BLAIR: Wright believes that over the decades, the Mexican government wanted people to forget about the Cristero rebellion. He says even Mexicans who worked on the movie knew little about it.

WRIGHT: They wanted to tell this story because, again, it was hidden for 80 years, and it was time to be told.

BLAIR: The archbishop of Los Angeles writes that the film's message of the importance of religious freedom has particular resonance for us today. Right now, many Catholics are furious with the Obama administration over a health care regulation that would require employers or their insurers to offer birth control to their workers. Forty-three Roman Catholic organizations filed a lawsuit against the administration, arguing it violates the First Amendment freedom of religion.

ANDREW WALTHER: There are debates in the United States over the meaning of religious liberty.

BLAIR: Here's Andrew Walther of the Knights of Columbus.

WALTHER: And I think that a number of films, and this film as well, also deal with issues of religious liberty.

BLAIR: But one of the main actors in the new movie takes it even further. Eduardo Verastegui is a devout Catholic who recently spoke to the Catholic News Service.

EDUARDO VERASTEGUI: You know, I don't see any difference between Plutarco Elias Calles and President Obama. I almost, like, see the same path, you know, the same pattern repeat itself.

YOUNG: I think President Obama would have to go a really long way to be like President Calles.

BLAIR: Catholic University history professor Julia Young.

YOUNG: We're in a functioning and vibrant democracy with freedom of the press and free speech, and that just wasn't what was going on in Mexico in the 1920s.

BLAIR: Andrew Walther of the Knights of Columbus agrees.

WALTHER: When you have a situation that deals with religious liberty, you have to be very careful not to conflate all of the similarities and all of the differences.

BLAIR: "For Greater Glory" opens in theaters nationwide today, and a number of Catholic leaders around the country are trying to spread the word. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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