Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

It’s ironic that For Greater Glory, a film about Mexico’s little-discussed Cristero War, an early 20th century uprising against government intrusion on religious liberty, is set to open in the U.S. next Friday (June 1). Coming less than two weeks after 43 Catholic institutions have filed lawsuits against the federal effort to require them to violate their beliefs by offering contraception as part of their healthcare packages, the film makes the still-contemporary point that government overreaches when it seeks to impose itself on the practice of faith.

The movie’s all-star cast includes Andy Garcia as General Enrique Gorostieta Velarde, the agnostic military leader hired by the rebels to manage their resistance to the government, and Eduardo Verástegui (Bella) as Anacleto González Flores, a Catholic lawyer who founded the Popular Union to organize Catholics in peaceful resistance to the government’s persecution of the Church. Though a pacifist,  Flores encouraged his fellow Catholics to assist the rebels via financial support, as well as through the giving of food, accommodation and clothing.

I was among a small group of bloggers who recently had the opportunity to participate in sit-downs  with both actors to discuss respective roles. I’ll run highlights from the Andy Garcia chat tomorrow. For now, some of what  Eduardo Verástegui had to say about his involvement in the film — and why he feels the movie tells to relevant story for today’s moviegoers.

Q: How did you become involved in this film?

Eduardo Verástegui: I didn’t know about this story…I left Mexico when I was 28. It wasn’t until I turned 30 years in Los Angeles that somebody asked me are you working in a film right now?  I said “No, I’m looking for a project right now.” He said “Why don’t you do a film about the Cristero War?” I said “What is that?” He said “What are you kidding me? You’re from Mexico!” I said “Yeah but what is that? I went to public school.  Maybe I didn’t go to school that day.  I missed that class or maybe I just don’t remember.” It was very embarrassing  for me because here was an American person asking me about my own history and I’m, like, “Oh, my gosh!”

Q:  I take it public schools in Mexico weren’t too eager to teach about the conflict.

Verástegui: That’s what I found out.  My parents knew of course.  It was sort of like a big wound that Mexico had. It was an embarrassment for the government. They realized that they went too far and they wanted to bury that wound in a hole and so it was prohibited to teach that in public schools — and I went to public school.

So, when I started learning more and more and more, I was like “Hold on a second. This wound should not be buried but let’s bring it out. Let’s heal it. Let’s go back in time to learn from the mistakes that we committed so we don’t make them again.  And then I was amazed by all these Mexican heroes who were not afraid to fight for something bigger than themselves — to the point that they gave their lives for what they believed.

Q: You starred in the low-budget pro-life film Bella. This film is far more epic in its scope. How did the two experiences differ?

Verástegui: It’s just a different genre. A different everything. Bella is more abstract.  It was a film that was shot in 23 days in New York. It was a small independent film. The budget was only three million dollars which was like one day of a big Hollywood film…But you cannot compare it because each one of them has (its) own heart.

Q: How was the acting experience different?

Verástegui: In Bella I was the lead. Both were emotional. Both are emotional.

I mean one (For Greater Glory) is close to me heart because I’m from Mexico and it was part of the history of Mexico This is a movie about the historical facts – like the Schindler’s List of Mexico.  And the other one (Bella) was the first film that I  produced . The first time I did both. I was the lead actor (and) I was a producer…It went to film festivals.  That kind of opened a lot of doors for us as filmmakers, me and my business partners. Bella was a little more challenging only because my characters doesn’t (speak much)…All his acting is through his eyes.  He (loses) it all and (then) finds everything important in life. It’s very profound .

In this one (For Greater Glory), I play a supporting role. It was a big challenge only because in Bella the character José didn’t exist. In this one Anacleto Gonzalez Flores is a Mexican hero. So, that in itself, I’m afraid because all the people who know of him right away start judging.  He’s called a “Mexican Gandhi.”  He was a peaceful man. He was a man who was against fighting back the government with violence…He said “We’re not going to fight.” He was fighting back but with peaceful means and he gave his life.

And at the end, the last words he said were inspired by (assassinated Ecuadorian President Gabriel García Moreno). This person got executed from his enemies. He said “Listen, the Americas. I die but God does not. Long live Christ the King!” He got shot. So Anacleto was inspired  by that and that’s why before he got executed he said the same thing . Then he said “May God bless you and forgive you. I do.” He forgave. I mean the last words that came out of his mouth were forgiving words and words of love to the guys who executed him.  So, he’s a hero to me. He’s in the process of being canonized . So, when you’re playing a role like that you feel like you’re giving life to him but actually it was the opposite. He was giving life to me.  The more I study about him I was like “Wow!”

Especially when I saw the film for the first time.  It’s impossible not to (ask the) question, you know, am I willing to give my life for something that’s bigger than myself? It’s one thing to give your life. It’s another thing to give your life in the way they gave their lives. In the film you don’t see exactly what happened because it’s impossible to see a scene like that.  He was naked, tortured, hanged by his fingers, I mean they did horrible things.

Q:  The death of José Luis Sánchez del Rio, the young Cristero boy who was put to death for refusing to renounce his faith, is especially hard to watch.

Verástegui: It’s very hard to watch  and it’s real…He is a big hero in Mexico…They gave him a lot of opportunities to give up. (They said) “Go on, Just hug your family.” …No. He went all the way…So they asked him, when he’s all beat up and tortured and everything, “Do you have a message for your parents?” (He answered) “Tell them I’ll see them in heaven.” That’s when they started stabbing him with the knife. They shot him…When you’re going that far, I think that’s not human. That – killing a kid just because of his beliefs —  going that far is not normal. That’s why in Mexico we are not proud of this period of time. That’s why for many years it was hidden – and that (many) Mexican people don’t know about this.  We are a culture that (likes) celebrate joy, and food and music and mariachi…We have this too, you know? A

Q: What lessons are there in this story for people of our time?

Verástegui: Well, history in general. What is history for? To learn from the good things and the bad things (so we can) keep doing the good things and (learn from) the bad things – the mistakes that we commit—so that we don’t do it again (and) can save ourselves from those horrible consequences.  The problem is we are humans and sometime we don’t learn.  We commit the same thing expecting that we’re going to get different result…It happened years later in Spain – in the Civil War – exactly the same thing. If you go and just Google Civil War and Spain 1930’s the same atrocities happened and it happened in Cuba and many other countries.  I think It’s happening in some places in Africa…The worst enemies of human beings are ourselves. We don’t need enemies. We don’t need aliens (from space) to shoot us. We don’t need animals to eat us.  All we need is ourselves to destroy us. Just watch the news every day. It’s scary. This will make you sad. It will make you cry. We don’t put love in the middle. We have (so much) more in common. We have hearts. We breathe. We eat, sleep and we have a lot of other things that we agree on. It’s just that our disagreements that…sometimes take us that far.

Q: How has the response to the film been in Mexico (where it opened on April 20)?

Verástegui: Well, the first week I believe it was in the first or second place. It was very well received…All the tweets that I receive are just unbelievable.

Q:   What has the government reaction been like?

Verástegui: I haven’t heard any of that. I mean there’s always going to be a controversy. Because, again,  not every single member of the government was for that…It was not just overnight. It was little by little by little until he (late Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles) wanted to dominate the entire country like Hitler. Hitler didn’t become this big maniac, lunatic dictator…right after he got in power.  He passed one law and then another law and then one more thing and one more thing.

At the same time, there were other great politicians who were trying to stop him (Calles). Just like in the Church, you saw guys who died for their faith and then you saw banditos using the name of the Church and killing people. There was bad people and good people on both sides. That’s why it’s not black and white…It was a fight for religious freedom. Some people fought for it in a holy way  and some people reacted in a very (different way).

…But  bottom line I think the movies about hope and love and (loving) for something bigger than yourself . I can tell from my own life…until I turned 28…I was very empty and I really didn’t have anything to fight for other than for myself in a very selfish way, my own comfort.  I thought I had everything because my family and my career were going well  and I had the fame and a lot of things that I thought if you have those things you’re going to be very happy. So I thought I had everything  but then, on the other side, I felt I had nothing. I was very empty and searching for happiness and peace and joy…I was kind of like feeling miserable and not because I went to jail or I lost someone or my job.  That made it even more confusing because everything was going well. I’m a healthy guy. I have my family, my parents , I’m working hard. Something was missing.

…This life is actually (about using) the talents (and) the gifts that you receive from God…to make a difference by helping or serving or doing something for other people. That’s what’s fulfilling. I was looking for fulfillment. I never was fulfilled until I started changing the way…I see things,  the way I see my family (and) the world in general.  I love the arts…How can I use the media to make projects that will not only entertain but will make a difference…Art has the power to heal the hearts of the people who see films. We all are wounded people in different areas and I think especially media in general…everything had power, huge power.  I was not assuming the responsibilities that I have to assume because I forgot that whatever project you are involved with, whether you like it or not, you are going to affect how people think…and sometimes its good and sometimes it’s not that good.  That package looks good – but maybe it’s not that good.

Q:  Has working on this film deepened your faith?

Verástegui: Of course. It challenged me.  I try to put my faith in the center of my life, to be inspired by my faith. Every day is an opportunity to become a better person. It doesn’t end until you die. Every day is like an opportunity…That’s what time is for.  It really is like an opportunity to  try and become the best version of yourself.  If everyone is trying to become the best versions of themselves, I think this world will be a better place. Instead of being selfish, just use your life to serve others.  There’s nothing more beautiful than that – to wake up every morning  to contribute in a positive way so we can make this world better by using our talents to serve others. I believe that we were (created ) for a mission that is very particular and unique  and beautiful – a mission that nobody else can do but you.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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