Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Passion of the Christ, Part II: Cristiada

When I think back on my years of activism in the Latino gay community I am always struck by those few unexpected moments and images that still rattle in my head and reverberate long after they have passed.

On March 14th, 2004, New York saw as huge an anti-gay rally as I have ever witnessed. Police reports put the crowd outside the Bronx Courthouse at 5,000 to 7,000 but I wouldn't be surprised if the count was much higher.

Although it's not entirely clear who masterminded the event or paid for it, hundreds of Latino churches throughout the NY/NJ/CT tri-state region ended their Sunday morning services by herding parishioners into buses and taking them to the Bronx. At the time, President George W. Bush was threatening a constitutional amendment to block same-sex marriages in the United States and rally organizers seemed all too happy to stand up and speak up in front of a huge banner that read "No to homosexual marriages, yes to President George Bush's constitutional amendment" (so much for a separation between church and state!).

I was there with 40 or 50 queer Latinos and allies hoping to counter the homophobic sentiments being sent in the name of God but there was little chance our message could reach such a huge crowd.  At the very least, we did provide an alternative message to some of the Latino media that showed up that day.

As the crowd swelled past the Courthouse grounds, across the street and into the park grounds where we stood, the police saw it fit to pen us in as a measure of protection. But I never really felt the need for the police pens nor did I feel in physical danger.  Most of the signs were of the "God made Adam for Eve, not for Steve" or the "love the sinner but hate the sin" variety and most people left us alone.

Most people.

As we stood in our safety area a woman wearing dressed in a denim jacket and wearing a baseball cap slowly made her way up the hill towards us calling us sinners and telling us we were going to hell. The detail that has stuck with me all these years later was not so much her shouting or vehemence but the fact that she was holding a copy of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" high in the air - until someone stepped in and convinced her to walk away.

The movie had just been released three weeks earlier, and I remember finding it hilarious that someone was using a pirated version of the DVD to tell me I was going to hell.

It had also opened to boffo box office success in the United States in part due to the word-of-mouth from preview screenings at right-wing evangelical venues.

Which brings me to a new film called "Cristiada".

Probably not quite as bloody as "The Passion of the Christ" nor as well-poised to receive as large a distribution deal, this is certainly the most expensive and overtly direct attempt to appeal to that segment of the Latino evangelical community who thought "The Passion of the Christ" was a documentary.

Here is the official movie preview which was released at the end of March...

This period piece film dramatizes the Mexican Cristero War of 1926 in which Christians picked up arms to defeat a secular government who was prosecuting religious expression.  The cinematography looks amazing which is not surprising as the movie is being promoted as the most expensive film to be completely filmed in Mexico.  It also has a strong cast which includes legendary actor Peter O'Toole as well as Eva Longoria, Andy Garcia, Rubén Blades, Bruce Greenwood, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Nestor Carbonell.

Scratch deeper and you'll ask why all these fine actors got themselves involved in this project.

Director Dean Wright previously handled special effects for "Chronicles of Narnia: The Witch and the Wardrobe" which is based on a series of C.S. Lewis novels that some have taken to task for weaving Christian theology into what is essentially a children's book series.  That might not necessarily indicate religious intent but an April 8th interview with the homophobic religious site CNA certainly does ("Movie explores faith in Cristero War against forced secularism").

In the interview Wright says he became interested in the film thanks to producer Pablo José Barroso who is no stranger to religious propaganda as in the film "Guadalupe" which was also championed at CNA.

Most worrisome is the involvement of actors Eduardo Verastegüi and Karyme Lozano in the film.

Mexican born Verastegüi plays the role of a martyr Christian priest who was hung for advocating peace. He is also an actor who gained notoriety as a member of a beefcake boyband called Kairo who eventually moved to Hollywood seeking showbiz success.

He found it, initially being cast in movies like "Chasing Papi" and television episodes of "CSI: Miami" and "Charmed" but rumor is that he also fell in the hands of an English-language teacher who taught him that his "life-style" was wrong.

He soon became a rabidly anti-choice advocate and a marriage equality opponent who became the Latino face of those who backed Proposition 8 in California, which sought to ban recognition of any same-sex marriages in the state.

Speaking to Univisión as quoted by CNA (of course) Verastegüi says "It is a film with a great message of faith, love, hope, loyalty and courage, about the religious persecution in Mexico... I play a Catholic lawyer, Blessed Anacleto Gonzalez Flores, called the ‘Mexican Ghandi,’ because he was a heroic pacifist who only wanted to defend his Catholic faith without violence".

Verastegüi playing the martyr. Sigh. As for Karyme Lozano...

Oy! Another big conversion into homophobic blather. This from a woman who gladly received the 2008 crown as the queen of the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade!

And there you go. A star-studded Latino movie that spends millions of dollars painting Christians as innocent victims in ways that the director, the producers and some of the actors surely hope it will reverberate today, particularly in Latino communities.

They are already targeting right-wing religious sites for promotion, just as Mel Gibson did a decade ago. This time. though, they are going straight for the heart of the Latino community and I'm not so sure once it finds a distributor it will receive the critical response it deserves to get, particularly in the leading Latino publications.

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