The cast includes Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria, Peter O'Toole (in a cameo role as a murdered priest, the octogenarian is splendid), Ruben Blades and Mexican star Eduardo Verastegui. This is serious stuff.
The movie depicts the Mexican Cristero uprising against the military dictatorship of President Plutarco Calles between 1926 and 1929. Calles was an ardent anti-Catholic in a nation dominated by Catholics. At his command, Catholic churches were ordered shuttered, and Mass was outlawed. Many priests were murdered.
The most famous moment in the struggle, not depicted in the film, was the martyrdom of Padre Miguel Pro. Calles ordered a firing squad to shoot him in 1927, with the heart-wrenching final moments (Pro kneeling in prayer and then standing, his arms extended in the sign of the cross as bullets shattered him, and then shot point-blank when the fusillade didn't kill him) photographed by order of the "presidente." Padre Pro was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988.
I was shown the early trailers because of the family connection. My grandfather Will Buckley Sr. was a strong supporter of the Cristeros'. A devout Catholic with business interests in Mexico and an ardent love of that country -- so much so that he planned to move his family there -- Buckley provided materiel aid to the impoverished peasants. Some things we know to be true. He was targeted for assassination; his oil leases were expropriated by the government; he was expelled. Others are in question: that there was an actual attempt to kill him (another version has it that the assassins turned and offered him assistance should he want someone capped); that a train he hired to smuggle in arms from El Paso (maybe) became lost, wandered about at night and ultimately found its way back to El Paso and the weapons were confiscated; and that his heirs also were banished -- but don't tell my cousin who has been practicing law there for decades.
You know nothing of this uprising? Not to worry. Virtually no one does. That included the primary actors. Garcia tells Religion News Service he knew nothing but understands it, given that the same catastrophe befell his native Cuba, where it "was not only the taking away of religious rights. They curtailed and took away all rights." Even Verastegui, a fervent Catholic, admits he was ignorant of this struggle because of the Mexican public school system. That has changed now, thanks to the soft-spoken and elegant Mexican real estate developer-turned-producer Pablo Jose Barroso.
Much is being written about the timing of the movie's release in the wake of the Obama administration's anti-religious mandate and on the eve of the bishops' planned "Fortnight for Freedom" June 21 through July 4. The timing is extraordinary but fortuitous. The movie was planned before President Barack Obama's assault against the Catholic Church.
But just the idea of the connection brings out the worst in the secularist press. Slant Magazine pans it as a film "that gives the screen epic a bad name." It attacks the "solemn speechifying," the "overstuffed cast of characters" and the "half-baked material," and given "this religion is specifically Catholic ... the film ... makes the material a tough sell." When Garcia's character ultimately converts to Christianity, "we're back to embracing a worldview where the implied mandate to practice Catholicism feels nearly as onerous as the inability to do so."
But how historically accurate is this "implied mandate to practice Catholicism"? Here's a hint. Slant dismisses "a whole host of bathetic subplots," claiming "its martyrdom fetish reaches its grotesque nadir when a young boy dies rather than make the most token anti-Catholic gesture."
As for the alleged mushy effusiveness and the martyrdom fetish, there are some historical facts. More than 90,000 died. Dozens have since been canonized by the church, including 25 by John Paul II alone. The young boy was Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio, who was tortured with his heels slashed before being made to walk to his execution. "He cried and moaned with pain," stated an eyewitness. And then he was shot dead.
The "most token anti-Catholic gesture," which would have saved his life, was his refusal to shout "Death to Christ the King," instead proclaiming, "Viva Cristo Rey!"
Jose was 14. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
It is still illegal to celebrate Mass outdoors in Mexico.