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Romero: Evolution of a Martyr

by Dean Peerman

Dean Peerman is a senior editor at the Christian Century. This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 4, 1988, p. 870. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Perhaps it was inevitable that a film would be made about the life and death of Oscar Arnulfo Romero. Certainly the late Salvadoran archbishop’s story lends itself to cinematic treatment. In fact, Paulist Pictures’ Romero may be only the first of several films about the assassinated prelate; for example, director Gillo Poncecorvo (The Battle of Algiers) reportedly has a Romero project under way (tentative title: The Devil’s Bishop) But however many such films are made, none is likely to be as much a labor of love as Romero was. Spearheading the undertaking was Priest/producer Ellwood (Bud) Kieser, who during the course of the filming -- in and around Cuernavaca in Mexico -- celebrated mass for the cast and crew on four occasions, each of them followed by a fiesta. That sort of thing doesn’t happen very often in the making of a feature film for commercial distribution.

Although made on a shoestring budget by Hollywood standards (approximately $3.5 million), Romero was not easy to finance. After being turned down by all three television networks ("too depressing," said one; "too controversial," said another; "no love interest," said the third) Kieser took his project to several major studios -- but no luck there either. Finally he was able to obtain sufficient funding from his "own kind," with significant commitments from such organizations as the Catholic Communication Campaign -- the media-financing arm of the U.S. Catholic bishops -- and his own order, the Paulist Fathers. The result was the first feature film ever produced under Roman Catholic auspices.

Romero is, as Father Kieser likes to capsulize it, the story of a mouse who became a tiger. When Romero was selected as San Salvador’s archbishop he was considered a "safe" choice, one who would not rock the boat or get involved in an increasingly polarized sociopolitical situation, and at that time he was indeed a diffident and indecisive soul. Quiet, bookish and rather conservative, he was also on friendly terms with some members of the landed elite. But he was also a man of integrity, and as his eyes were gradually opened to what was going on around him -- particularly the exploitation and repression of the poor at the hands of the oligarchy, the government and the military -- he could no longer keep silent. During his short three-year tenure as archbishop, Romero became the conscience of El Salvador, broadcasting weekly -- except when jammings or bombings prevented him -- his simple yet eloquent gospel-based homilies calling for justice, peace and freedom. And forgiveness. Amid atrocities and torture he affirmed the Beatitudes. On March 24, 1980, not long after he voiced a plea to soldiers to disobey killing orders that were contrary to God’s commandments and their moral convictions, he was gunned down by a rightist assassin while saying mass in the chapel of the hospital where he lived.

The accomplished Puerto Rican -- born actor Raul Julia, who portrays Romero in the film, is especially effective in conveying this reluctant hero’s incremental transformation. As Julia’s subtle, nuanced performance indicates, even after gaining the confidence to speak out, the archbishop did not lose all his doubts, fears and hesitations. A principle catalyst precipitating the change in Romero was the murder of his friend and fellow priest Rutilio Grande. There is a scene in the film in which the country’s president-elect calls Grande a communist, and Romero replies: "You are a liar." Julia’s facial expressions and body language suggest that in no way does the archbishop relish uttering those words. But he cannot let his dead friend be slandered; the truth must be told.

Romero is faithful to the basic facts of Romero’s last three years, but minor liberties are taken with some events and personalities; as producer Kieser has said, he (along with director John Duigan and script-writer John Sacret Young) was interested not in turning out a documentary or a docudrama but in capturing the essence of a man. To a remarkable degree he and his team succeeded, but Romero is not flawless. Some of the scenes, especially at the beginning, verge on rhetorical overkill; one begins to expect a visual primer on liberation theology, although the didacticism becomes less obtrusive as the film progresses and Julia’s Romero becomes the focal point. Some scenes are all too predictable, some have a stagy, tableau-like stiffness. And with an almost entirely Hispanic cast, why not go all the way? Why make two exceptions, Richard Jordan and Harold Gould? Jordan in particular, though generally quite competent at his craft, is not convincingly Hispanic as Father Grande. Romero’s assassination, when it finally comes, seems almost perfunctory; since the filmmakers were willing to take liberties, why did they not make the climactic event more suspenseful and compelling?

The film does have its suspenseful moments, however, as in the sequence in which the archbishop visits Grande’s village church, which has been closed by the regime. At first intimidated and sent away by abusive military guards -- who machine-gun the tabernacle -- Romero soon returns to pick up the hosts scattered about the floor, as the soldiers fire over his head. He then comes back a second time, resolutely facing down the soldiers as he dons his chasuble and leads the villagers into the church to conduct mass.

Although Romero misses greatness, Julia’s restrained yet powerful performance makes the film well worth viewing. In Chicago recently to promote the movie, the Jesuit-educated actor acknowledged in an interview that the experience of portraying Oscar Romero had rekindled his Catholicism. Now a regular attender at mass, he is also active in the Hunger Project, a Catholic-sponsored effort to end hunger worldwide by the year 2000. (At the interview’s conclusion I said to Julia, "I hope you win an Oscar -- for Oscar." And I meant it.) Will the film be shown in El Salvador? Not to the general public, I daresay -- at least not in the near future. Unfortunately, the country’s agony continues.

Since Romero was murdered in 1980, more than 60,000 other Salvadoran civilians have been killed-about 85 percent of them by the military and the so-called death squads (generally the military in nonmilitary guise) This is not to deny that the leftist insurgents can be ruthless, too, but as a rule they are more discriminate. Though on a smaller scale than in the early ‘80s, political killings still go on, yet not one ranking military officer has ever been tried for human rights violations -- not even in the Romero case, despite the unassailable evidence implicating (then Major) Roberto D’Aubuisson and his cohorts. (According to former President Jose Napoleon Duarte, the actual trigger man was a bodyguard of D’Aubuisson’s whose last name is Regalado.)

Today, in fact, the charismatic D’Aubuisson -- a man widely linked to the death squads, a man described by former U.S. Ambassador Robert White as "a pathological killer" -- is probably the most powerful individual in El Salvador. (D’Aubuisson is a character in Romero, but out of concern that he might bring suit that character is called "Lieutenant Columa.") The party that he founded -- the Republican Nationalist Alliance, or ARENA -- now controls all branches of government: the presidency, the legislature and the courts. D’Aubuisson was not slated for the presidency himself because that would have been displeasing to the country’s benefactor, the United States (more than $3.5 billion in aid since ‘81) , so the more moderate Alfredo Cristiani was put up. But Cristiani is decidedly beholden to D’Aubuisson and the military.

How could the party of the death squads win last spring’s elections, even with all the money it poured into the campaign? Two of the chief reasons were voter apathy and military intimidation. Voter turnout was extremely low, in part because the populace was totally disillusioned by the broken promises, ineffectiveness and corruption of Duarte’s Christian Democratic government; moreover, the Christian Democrats’ candidate, Fidel Chavez Mena, was a lackluster technocrat. And any voter might think twice about dropping a ballot for a "wrong" candidate into a clear-plastic box as a soldier looked on. In any case, many Salvadorans consider elections to be utterly meaningless under the oppressive wartime conditions that prevail in their country.

Furthermore, since ARENA’s accession to office, church-state relations have deteriorated markedly. Recently the military conducted a midnight raid on a Christian refugee support office in San Salvador, abducting 70 people. The 30 women in the group were stripped naked and herded into a cell. Many of them were raped. Twenty-year-old María Mirtala López told an American priest who visited her in jail that she was hung by her breasts in an attempt to extract a confession. On July 18 the national police invaded the headquarters of the National Union of Earthquake Victims, making off with two truckloads of equipment and aid -- including all of the medicines -- before shutting down the office; three of the women arrested there were tortured and now face charges of being "international communists." On July 22, in the latest in a series of attacks on Catholic-run Central American University, four bombs exploded on the campus. Just last month four members of San Salvador’s Emmanuel Baptist Church were taken from their homes and tortured; three of them are still imprisoned.

More and more U.S. church workers are being deported from El Salvador or barred from entry; reportedly the ARENA regime has a list of personae non gratae that includes such notables as Archbishops Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee and John Quinn of San Francisco. Even though he has a valid visa, U.S. priest Richard Howard, Central America regional director of Jesuit Refugee Service, has been ordered to leave the country. Many church people fear that with North Americans absent from the scene, the crackdown will intensify. As Peggy O’Grady, a social worker from the San Francisco archdiocese, asked after being denied entry, "What don’t they want us to see?" The situation has sufficiently alarmed Senator Alan Dixon, a middle-of-the-road Illinois Democrat, that he is gathering signatures from colleagues on a letter of protest to President Cristiani. Although further U.S. aid to El Salvador seems a foregone conclusion, some congress people hope to make it conditional on assurances of open access to provide help to civilian victims of the civil war -- a right recognized by international law.

More diplomatic than Romero was, Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, his successor, has sought to serve as mediator between the opposing sides. But the government tends to repudiate his services as negotiator, and has refused safe passage to wounded rebels who have taken refuge in his cathedral and are in need of medical care. Recently Vice-Minister of Defense Colonel Inocente Montano accused the archbishop and Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez of "playing into the hands of the guerrillas" and "tilting the human rights statistics in favor of the guerrillas."

The one ray of hope in the situation, faint though it may be, is the fact that representatives of the government and the guerrillas, meeting in Mexico City, have signed an agreement calling for talks to begin in Costa Rica on October 16. Few analysts are optimistic about the scheduled negotiations -- but they are unprecedented, and a step in the right direction. Both sides, which are responding to a variety of pressures both internal and external, know how deeply the Salvadoran people desire a cessation of hostilities. The people continue to be inspired by the martyred Romero, their compassionate shepherd. But the peace and justice he worked and prayed for remain a deferred dream. May that dream one day be fulfilled.

Dean Peerman


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