Tag Archives: film

!Viva Cristo Rey! Some historical background for the movie “For Greater Glory”

15 May

I haven’t seen much publicity for it, but the movie titled Cristiada in Mexico and For Greater Glory in the United States is coming to theaters June 1st.  I imagine a sizable number of moviegoers will fill the seats so they can watch Eva Longoria (or, for ladies who prefer older gentlemen, Peter O’Toole).  I don’t imagine that many U.S. viewers, however, will know much about the historical event the film revolves around: the Cristero War of the 1920s in Mexico.

I did an undergraduate research project on press surrounding the Cristero rebellion, two years ago, and with this movie coming out so soon I’m hoping that some of that research proves useful.  If you can read Spanish, I commend you to the Spanish-language Wikipedia entry (it’s much more complete than the English article, unfortunately).

The full text of my research paper with sources: Los Fieles: Faith, Anxiety, and Prejudice in the Press during Mexico’s “Religious Crisis,” February-July 1926

Another previous post — Mexico’s Holy War: Faith, Prejudice, and the Press in 1926

This is David Uribe Velasco, a native of Buenavista de Cuellar, a small town in southern Mexico.

A month ago marked the 85rd anniversary of his death, and next month, it will have been 12 years since his elevation to sainthood by Pope John Paul II.  On April 12, 1927, Father Velasco—a Catholic priest—after putting his affairs in order (he repaid the 50 pesos owed to a fellow cleric; he bequeathed his typewriter and vestments to a friend)—and after blessing his captors in the sign of cross and the name of the Virgin of Guadalupe, he was taken outside, forced to his knees by Federal soldiers, and shot in the back of the head.

In May 2000, he was canonized as San David, a martyr, and one of 250,000 Mexicans killed in the conflict known today as la Cristiada, or the Mexican Cristero War—a rebellion unique in modern history as a popular uprising that took the international community completely by surprise.

Lasting from summer 1926 to spring 1929, the Cristero rebellion represented a popular reaction to the contemporary Mexican administration’s increasing restrictions on religious speech and practice in the country—a country with a Catholic population upwards of 90%.

The very name of the war bears witness to the deep-set piety of the rebel soldiers, christened Cristeros by opponents ridiculing their battle cry:  “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” or “Long Live Christ the King!”

However, in the months leading up to the initial outbreak of violence the depth of Catholic devotional sentiment in the Mexican population was completely underestimated by the American press, which saw the seething controversy to the south as a strictly institutional conflict—not the rebellion of individual cristeros, but a “Church War.”

The flashpoint for mobilization was July 31, 1926—when the Catholic Episcopal hierarchy of Mexico ordered, as protest against clerical persecution, the indefinite suspension of worship services throughout the country—and the federal government obliged by attempting to take possession of church buildings.

Lay Catholics resisted.

Crowds of hundreds, most of them women, spontaneously mobilized to defend the churches—even as police brigades brought fire hoses and mounted federal soldiers to disperse the congregations.  One Mexico City newspaper summed the day up in a single headline—“Los Fieles [the faithful] Will Not Abandon Their Churches.”

Even so, the fight was initially expected to be a rout.

For perspective—At the time, the Mexican government under President Plutarco Elías Calles had a federal army of nearly 80,000 professional soldiers.  The rebel movement, on the other hand, was unorganized until 1927—and comprised mostly untrained, and practically unarmed, rural Catholic peasants of the Bajío region, Central and Southern Mexico, which remains even today the bastion of Catholic conservatism in the country.  To the contrary—by the end of the war the Cristeros numbered 50,000.  And an auxiliary brigade of  women, engaged in smuggling weapons and provisions into combat zones for the soldiers, totaled 25,000.

Popular sentiment was enraged—and the uprising reflected the crystallization and shattering of widespread anxiety that had been growing throughout 1926.

A memoirist from San Julián, a small town in Jalisco, one of the centers of the rebellion, recalled the pervading climate of fear and apprehension that entered her community with the New Year:

“The enemies of the Holy Church began to spread their poison everywhere… black stormclouds began to rise in the blue sky—Everyone was afraid.”

But this anxiety of the faithful was ignored.  Commentators abroad, particularly in the United States, viewed and reported the conflict through the lens of domestic problems and paradigms: an ideological clash of Church and State.

On one side, the child of the 1910 Mexican Revolution: he Liberal, secular administration of President Calles—determined to suppress religious speech, end religious education, restrict the influence and very number of Catholic clerics in Mexico, and nationalize Church property—in the name of secularization.

On the other the child of the Spanish Conquest: the centuries-old Mexican Catholic Episcopacy under Archbishop José Mora y del Río, equally determined to preserve the Church’s economic privileges and institutional autonomy.

Church and State—no third party in existence.  But this was the perspective of an American press embroiled in its own ideological collision:

Just the year before, the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” over evolution in the education system had made headlines in the United States as a war of secularism or fundamentalism, science or faith, progress or regression, educated urbanites versus rural ignorance.  These were the antitheses occupying American minds in 1926—and reporter H.L. Mencken summed up the public attitude in two words: the rural-based, deeply religious segment of the American population comprised: “yokels and morons.”

This domestic situation provided American commentators with a template for the dissatisfied Mexican laity: rural, ignorant, superstitious, racially inferior—and thus incapable of exercising any significant political influence.

Essentially, the United States media projected its own anxieties onto Mexico, and ignored those of the Mexican Catholic.

One incident in particular encapsulates the American perspective:

When Mora y del Rio and the Episcopacy announced that worship would be suspended at the end of July, the Mexican faithful flocked in thousands to churches to receive what many believed might be the final sacraments of their lives.  The Archbishop himself was said to have baptized, confirmed, and married over 3,000 individuals in one day alone.

But while the Mexican press reported apocalyptic panic—in San Julián, the faithful prayed in the streets for God’s pity and mercy—TIME magazine treated the incident as entertainment:

“… barefoot, blanketed Indian runners; toothless Mexican gaffers, perhaps pagans all their lives, hobbled in frenzied haste to receive a precious sprinkling of holy water… in this baptismal race.”

Said correspondent was also thoughtful enough to add a footnote explaining to his readers that the people of Mexico were only nominally Catholic, their religion really a pantheon of primitive deities smeared with a veneer of saints and idols.

Even New York City’s premier Catholic periodical, the Commonweal, espoused strikingly similar racial and religious bigotry:

“the plain truth about Mexico… is that a native Indian population is not the same thing as a Caucasian civilization fostered by centuries of Christian discipline.”

The national academic journal Current History exhibited a comparable bias in its July 1926 issue—intended to be a symposium on opinion about the religious situation in Mexico.

The contributing parties—supporters the Mexican Government, American Catholics, and American Protestants (although, notably no representative of Mexican Catholicism went to print)—all, essentially, agreed on one central issue: the degeneracy of the masses in Mexico.  The only question that remained was which institution—Church or State—was responsible for developing a program for the “uplift” of the Indian and Indo-Latino population:

“Physical welfare is a fact; spiritual consolations are the resources of a theory.”

—a comment that typifies the 1920s, and even modern, elitist ‘progressive’ trivialization of Mexican Catholic piety.

The Mexican press, on the other hand, did not see the growing religious crisis as an issue of progress; rather, it was about freedom of conscience.  This is probably my favorite quote to come from a reel of microfilm.  From the Mexico City paper Excélsior:

“We imitate the United States in its defects, in its sports, in its diversions, in its food, in its clothing, in its affectionate ‘spooning’… but in its indisputable virtues, we don’t care much to imitate them.”

Still, the American press remained convinced that religion was not a primary driving force in human behavior—first came social and economic factors.  And thus, the religious crisis in Mexico could not be any sort of popular war, let alone a “holy war,” but rather had to represent a power struggle between institutions.  Thus when the Mexican Episcopacy called for an indefinite suspension of religious services beginning July 31st—a virtual interdict—American papers such as the Catholic Commonweal assumed the inert, helpless Mexican laity would bear their cross and pray.

But popular anxiety had been steadily growing since Mexico rang in the New Year 1926 and the faithful of San Julián saw “dark clouds” on the horizon.  As early as February, a columnist for the Mexico City paper El Universal predicted what the American press could not imagine: violence.

In an article titled “Spiritual peace is indispensable,” a columnist warned against the Calles administration attacking the “essence of the religion”—the sacraments.

Current History writers, such as the Methodist bishop James Cannon, undervalued this deeply-rooted devotion.  According to Cannon, Catholic ritual was superstitious ceremony alone—and only served to retard social and economic progress for the Mexican peasant:

“The mass in the morning, the rosary in the evening, confession, communion, extreme unction, the benediction of the grace within a Church cemetery, and responsories for the departed, kept the people well under the control of the church even after they were dead…”

But that is a viewpoint unique to the primarily Protestant United States.

Protestantism, unlike its Catholic rival, developed from a theology of faith and scripture alone.  The Catholic Church, contrarily, held tradition on par with these as a source of religious authority: the sacraments were thus not empty ritual to believers, but a conduit of God’s grace and the path to salvation—the essence of religion El Universal mentioned.

And when this was targeted on July 31, 1926—churches seized, worship suspended, and sacraments ended throughout the country—all the assurances of the American press that there would be no reaction meant nothing to the Mexican Catholics who felt their very identity at risk.  From El Universal, six months before the July 31st uprising:

“The truth is that the people never commit suicide.  They might change, transform, and even disappear; but they never change their essential nature—an integral part of native religion.  It is the Mexican people, instinctively, who understand the danger.  For them it is a question of to be or not to be… and it costs everything to want to be!”

Until an accord was reached in June of 1929 between the Mexican Episcopacy and the Calles administration, it did cost everything for faithful Mexican Catholics like Father Velasco.

And in the end, the Mexico City paper was right—the Mexican people knew early on what the international community, blinded by racial prejudice and a disastrous underestimation of the depth of religious devotion in Mexico, never saw coming: the tragedy and the violence of la Cristiada.

* * *


The Aliens Speak French (Event: Fantastic Planet and Chronopolis at UCLA)

14 Dec

Monday night, I went with my sister Charlie (aspiring artist) and my friend Doug (aspiring Jew) to a screening of classic French sci-fi animation at UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater.  As Charlie says—using a word generally reserved for Pink Floyd and that bizarre children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth—it was trippy.

The theater itself set the tone: lines of light decorated the walls and ceiling surrounding the screen, making it look for all the world like we were traveling at warp speed on the USS Enterprise.  The playbill told us to expect the double feature to feature “chilling allegories,” Borges-esque phantasmagorics, enigmatic storylines filled with a “surreal taxonomy.”  We should’ve guessed what would happen next, but Charlie and I were just three days out of Tuscaloosa—how could we have known the horror of a theater suddenly filling with hipsters?  A surreal taxonomy indeed.

As determinedly bad haircuts and ironic screen print t-shirts enveloped us, Charlie, Doug, and I struggled for breath under the crushing weight of existential angst.  Thankfully, it wasn’t long before the show started.

First was La planete sauvage, or “Fantastic Planet,” a 72-minute hand-drawn animation from 1973.  Here’s the basic story:

Somewhere out in the distant reaches of space, there is the planet of the Traags, a blue-skinned, fish-faced race of giants who keep as pets strange aliens from the planet Terra.  These Oms (read hommes, the French word for men) are variously collared and coddled by Traag children, or, when they escape and form communities in the wild, eradicated with poison like vermin.  They breed so quickly, after all.  The Traags don’t breed at all on their planet, as far as the Oms can tell.  They spend most of their time in Meditation, out-of-body experiences.

For all their seeming spiritual enlightenment and advanced technology, however, the Traags engage on a de-Oming campaign even after they find evidence that the Oms have advanced intelligence.  The only solution, obviously, is for the Om to manufacture a rocket and fly on up to the Strange Planet, the Traags’ world’s moon that the Oms pray to.

At this point in the movie, both Doug and I independently developed the theory that the Strange Planet was going to be Earth, and that the Oms’ colonization of it would be our human origin story.

Didn’t happen.

When the Oms touched down on La planete sauvage, they didn’t find the Garden of Eden.  They found a bunch of headless giant stone statues doing a sex dance.  For real.  I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.  Apparently, this was how the Traags bred, by projecting their consciousnesses into the statues and making little blue babies by… waltzing with marble statues.  Hey, to each his own.

So the Oms knew the big secret of the Traag, and they did what any oppressed people would do if placed in the same opportunity: they shattered the statues with really high-pitched sonic blasts.  Threatened with the destruction of their entire race, the Traags stopped massacring Oms.  Oh frabjous day!  But there was no real reconciliation or peaceful coexistence—the Oms got themselves an artificial moon to live on, and everything worked out.

The end.

I don’t know about you, but the whole premise was incredibly dark.  Every time I look at my cat now, I wonder if she’s self-aware and plotting the destruction of humankind with feline co-conspirators.  Beyond that—Fantastic Planet say something disturbing not only about human nature: that we have to be pushed to the very brink before being forced to get along.  It was mutually-assured destruction for the Oms and the Traags if either got out of line.  Cold War allegory, much?

This semester, it was a running joke in my “War in American Culture” class that I interpreted everything we read as commentary on the dark tendencies of human nature.  But really—with this storyline, the French title’s English cognate is just as appropriate as the translation: it’s a seriously Savage Planet.

But oms are oms—they adapted.  It was a friggin’ weird landscape, with giant crystals growing over trees and tentacled birds cackling as they killed furry little animals for fun.  The people were reduced to living in completely primitive communities out in the wild, reverting to leadership by a chief wizard and decision-making by combat to the death (if I were the wizard, it would be rock-paper-scissors all the way).  But when given the opportunity to learn, steal, and utilize Traag technology, they took it.  They were determined, and adaptable, flexible and unsinkable.  It’s what people have been like since the beginning of human history.  Om pride ftw!

Most interesting of all to me, though, was how the film succeeded in 71 minutes in what I’ve been failing at for years—converting my sister into a sci-fi-natic (yeah, I went there).  Just a couple minutes in, Charlie leaned over and whispered to me, Do you like this? I gave a noncommittal shrug and locked my face into what I’ve been told is my default expression: what Doug termed “The Morales Disdainful Snarl.”  Charlie beamed.  I love it! she said.  Oh, and when we got home, she tried to find the soundtrack online, then started reading Whitley Strieber’s Communion.  Who knew.

Charlie loved Chronopolis too.  I was just frustrated.  It was the weirdest friggin’ thing I’ve seen in my entire life.  And I’ve seen a community theater production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.  There were Egyptian statues doing stop-motion claymation stuff and some spindly little rock-climber doing some folk dance with a sentient orange ball on a tight rope.

(see 10:00)

And even that’s too coherent an explanation.  The program said Chronopolis (1982) is about an alien city of immortal beings who manufacture moments of time, but it could be another Cold War metaphor for all I could tell.  Not even the hipsters knew (or pretended to know) what was going on—half the forty-odd person crowd left before the end of Chronopolis.  It was some seriously weird shit.  I won the DARE essay award for my school in 6th grade, but even I could sympathize with Doug when he muttered that he really regretted not getting high before watching this.

All I know is the French are friggin weird.

Mommy’s Little Monster (Splice review)

30 Jun

In the movies, horror and science fiction go hand in hand—or maybe just horror and science.

Think Gattaca, Serenity, even I Am Legend with its cancer-curing, zombie-creating virus.  The message tends to be: Don’t mess with Mother Nature.  And while Will Smith makes a pretty badass scientist trying to save humanity, in a lot (dare I say most?) of these cinematic case studies, the labcoat is code for creepy.

Splice seems pretty conventional in that way.  Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) are the power couple of genetic engineering.  Getting the cover of Wired in the first five minutes of the film, they run a pharmaceutical lab called N.E.R.D. (Nucleic Exchange Research and Development—awesome acronym, right?) and blast rock music while synthesizing proteins.  Not to mention their boss introduces them at a major research conference as “Splicemasters extraordinaire”—which sounds like a bad DJ name, but ties in pretty well with Clive’s tricked-out labcoat (see above).

In any case, Elsa and Clive are the best in the field, and determined to go further than anyone else—quoth Dr. Kast: “If we don’t use human DNA, someone else will.”

That’s right, human cloning.  Well… not exactly.

I’m not sure exactly what it is about genetic engineering that gives people the heebie jeebies.  And I’m not just talking the Right to Life, tape-over-the-mouth-at-rallies set—there’s simply something shiver-inducing about anemic nerds snapping on blue latex gloves in a laboratory (pronunciation: luh-BOR-uh-tor-ee).

Maybe it’s the fact that a movie like Splice might not be science fiction for long—heck, we cloned Dolly in 1996.  For all we know, someone decanted an amphibious, winged human hybrid with a spiky tail even as you sat in the theater and lost your lunch.  Or maybe not.  But whoever wins the stem cell debate, there’s one thing I’m convinced of: eventually, whatever can be done, will be done.

And here’s the twist: I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.  In fact, I’m not sure that the Splice subtext says it’s a bad thing either.

Spoilers ahead; if you haven’t seen it and want to, here’s my review in a nutshell– Splice gets five stars for creepiness, five stars for moral conundrums, and five stars for being flat-our bizarre.  I loved it.

For me, the creepiest thing about the movie wasn’t the Clive-Dren sex scene, nor even the Dren-Elsa rape scene—it was Elsa, in the barn, with a tape recorder.

But let’s back up.

While I was away in Greece, my dear Charlie and her boyfriend drove out to Edwards Cinema in Brea to see Splice.  Charlie likes scary movies—even if The Ring did turn her into a skittish mess for about six months of 2002.  Doubtless, they went in expecting something along the lines of Pan’s Labyrinth in terms of atmosphere and creepiness level (Splice was produced, after all, by the twisted mind of Guillermo del Toro himself, and there’s not much more disturbing than Goya’s “dark paintings”).  According to Charlie, they slunk out absolutely disgusted, asking themselves exactly what Brody/Clive exclaims at the climax of the film: “What the fuck is going on?”

When I came home, Charlie discouraged me from seeing it, telling me I’d be “embarrassed” if I did.  I, having no shame and having promised myself to be a faithful follower of all disturbing science fiction, whatever the format or genre, didn’t listen to her.  Of course, because she wouldn’t come to the theater with me, I had to watch the movie on Watch-Movies on my laptop, which was well enough.  I’ve always thought Top Ramen’s a much better movie snack than popcorn.

And so the buffering ended, and I hit play.

Splice started off conventionally, with the conventionally self-confident scientist couple saying things like “What’s the point if you can’t publish?” and “Are you telling me you don’t need to know?” and best of all, “If God doesn’t want us to explore his domain, why would he give us the map?”  Clive shares a “double-helix high five” with his brother, and Elsa indirectly compares herself to God by calling Fred and Ginger (her first new species, two slug-like masses of puckered white flesh) “Adam and Eve.”  Nothing terribly unexpected.

Things start to get weird during what I call the “birth scene”—Dren’s dramatic entrance into the human world.  Having developed from a baby blastocyst to a real monster in a much shorter amount of time than either Clive or Elsa anticipated, little Dren (Nerd backwards, btw) has to be blasted out of her amniotic tank.  Elsa, trying to feel for the creature through an opening in the decanter, gets her arm stuck—stuck as in stabbed—by the fetus’s noodly appendange.  Stabbed repeatedly as Clive smashes the tank, Elsa pants and screams and cries out throughout the entire birth scene.  Symbolism, much?

Clive and Elsa’s journey into parenthood doesn’t stop there—actually, besides the fact that their baby has strange double-jointed legs, a seam down the top of her head, and a fencing foil for a tail, raising Dren seems eerily familiar.  Always crying, Dren has a fit over her gooey green meals of “bean curd, roughage, and starch,” craving instead, as the scientists note, “high-sucrose foodstuffs.”  In English: Dren won’t eat her vegetables, but she sure likes sugar.

And to Elsa, Dren can do no wrong.  In a moment of pure parental adoration, she suggests revealing Dren’s existence to the scientific world (Clive, understandably, is horrified).  Elsa’s only argument?  “Do you think they could really look at this face and see anything less than a miracle?”  It’s the proverbial face only a mother could love.

Elsa gives Dren her old Barbie to sleep with, teaches her how to put on make-up, and tries—it seems—to be the mother she never had.  We get hints throughout the movie that Elsa didn’t have the most idyllic family life.  Not only did she live on a creepy farm in the woods, she had a monster for a mother.  What exactly her mother did is never explained (which bothers Clive as much as it does me), but as Elsa says: “If you could understand crazy, it wouldn’t be crazy.”

Which begs the question—is Elsa crazy?

Bizarre as it may seem to raise a hybrid baby made from your own DNA (another thing Clive didn’t know until very late, but which the audience could guess just from previews), Elsa was a good mom who brought out the human side in Dren—the girl who could disembowel a rabbit in the woods upon arrival at the farm but who, after playing dress-up with an old tiara of Elsa’s and looking at an old family picture of mom, can snuggle up with a kitty in the barn.  It says something about nature and nurture.

But about ninety minutes in, Elsa-as-mom snaps—or rather, Elsa turns into her own mother (a woman’s tragedy, as Oscar Wilde would say).  After an argument with Clive in which the still-wary dad shouts “When did you stop being a fucking scientist?” Elsa pulls out the labcoat.

Dren is back to “Subject H50,” strapped on a metal table and discussed, once more, like an experiment.  This, to me, is the most chilling scene—an indictment of human psychology, not Dren’s.

“Physically, H50 has evolved well,” Elsa says into a tape recorder, flat and clinical.  “However, recent violence behavior suggests dangerous psychological developments.”  The problem, Dr. Kast postulates, is “caused by a disproportionate species identification.”  In other words—Dren thinks she’s human, and she’s not.

Or maybe it’s Elsa having the dangerous psychological turnaround—she seems to have taken Clive’s question to heart… or brain, I guess.  When did she stop being a scientist?  My guess is, when she became a mother (that’s the answer to everything, right Jacob?)  And to remedy the problem—caused by Elsa’s disproportionate identification of Dren with the human species—Dr. Kast disowns her daughter.  Literally, she strips the human from Dren—wiping the make-up off her face, snapping the necklace off her neck, and cutting the dress off her shivering body.  And then, with a sinister syringe squirt and scalpel, she cuts the stinger and venomous glands out of Dren’s tail.

But Elsa’s not the only slightly disturbed member of the cast.  Clive, after some serious misgivings (shoor, he tried to drown Dren thirty minutes in), is the first to tell Dren that they need her, that they love her.  He is the subject of her first crayon sketches, and he is the one to introduce Dren to music.  Of course, things get creepy fast when he teaches her to dance in the barn, and sees Elsa in the shape of her lips and curve of her neck.

To make brief a disturbing climax (oh god, I really didn’t want that to be a pun):

Elsa walks in on Dren and Clive… doing it; Elsa freaks out; the Watch-Movies recorded audience laughs until some girl shouts “Shut up!”; Clive absolves himself by claiming that “We changed the rules”; Dren gets a fever and dies, and the grieving parents bury her; the N.E.R.D. boss figures out what’s going on back on the farm and demands to see Dren; he can, because it turns out she’s not dead—she just underwent a gender-switching metamorphosis.  Man-Dren rapes Elsa; Man-Dren kills Clive; Elsa kills Dren.  It’s like a Shakespearean tragedy.  Kind of.

And in the end, Elsa gets what she wants: a baby.  Too bad she had it with her clone instead of Adrien Brody.

As the credits rolled, I was stunned—but not embarrassed like Charlie had promised.  Splice was disturbing, sure, but not outrageous, and there’s an interesting subtext.

“Was this ever about science?” Clive demands of Elsa after realizing that Dren isn’t just a clone—it’s Elsa’s clone.  To answer his question, one would think not—Elsa had some mommy issues and passed them on to the next generation, and Clive’s libido is going places nobody wants to see.  In fact, the movie itself really isn’t about science about all, or the dangers of a new creation.

Like in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the “creature” is not inherently destructive or evil.  Frankenstein, which has become a byword for a monster, is the name of the doctor—who neglects to raise the child he made.

It’s all about the creators.  But really—what parent doesn’t mess up their kids?