Oscar Romero's cinematic sainthood

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Romero (1989) (M). Director: John Duigan, Richard Jordan, Alejandro Bracho, Tony Plana, Lucy Reina, Ana Alicia, Omar Chagall. Starring: Raul Julia. 102 minutes

'It took 20 years,' wrote Antonio Castillo, a Latin American journalist and academic who is Director of Journalism at RMIT University, earlier this week. 'Over and over again, forces inside the Vatican stalled and blocked it. But earlier this month, Pope Francis declared that Salvadorean Archbishop Oscar Romero was martyred in odium fidei, murdered 'in hatred of the faith' and not for political reasons.'

This momentous declaration paves the way for Romero's beatification, and comes as monumentally good news to Catholics and others who have long regarded the late Salvadoran Archbishop as one of modern history's great champions of the poor. Romero was assassinated in 1980 for speaking out against social injustice and government and military violence at the height of the Salvadoran civil war.

Where the Church lagged (whatever its reasons), Hollywood did not. Romero has long since been 'canonised' on celluloid, notably in this 1989 film from American religious production house Paulist Productions, directed by Australian John Duigan. The production has not aged well but is elevated by the late Raul Julia, whose conflicted, heroic portrayal of Romero is surely as iconic as the man himself.

Romero's promotion from Bishop of the Diocese of Santiago de María to Archbishop of San Salvador takes place against a backdrop of government oppression and public unrest. Rightwing military death squads employ brutal tactics to maintain order, while a guerilla movement has emerged in resistance. The Church, meanwhile, is standing by, a perhaps less-than disinterested observer. 

The moderate Romero quickly finds himself torn. On the one hand is his friendship with the Jesuit priest, Fr Rutilio Grande SJ (Jordan), who, with his (fictional) Jesuit brothers Fr Osuña (Bracho) and Fr Morantes (Plana), feels that piety is insufficient in the face of the oppression suffered by the country's poor whom they have long served, and that a more active solidarity is required.

On the other hand, there is the conviction of Romero's fellow bishops, which he initially shares, that the Church's role is not political, but only spiritual. He is expected by them to maintain a status quo that has until now worked in their favour. He has friends, too, among the government and wealthy classes, notably the (fictional) Minister of Agriculture, Rafael Zelada (Chagall) and his wife, Arista (Alicia).

Julia's Romero seems stoic to the point of aloofness, as he attempts to balance these perspectives. But this rickety balance is shaken as he bears witness to acts of repression — a bus prevented from reaching a polling station on election day; an open-air Mass dispersed by gunfire. When first Grande, and then Zelada, are assassinated, he senses that quietness is an inadequate response to the brutal conflict.

Now, more frequently, Julia's performance exchanges stillness for righteous fury. Still it is rooted less in ideology than in basic human compassion. Violence, in and of itself, is repugnant to Romero, no matter who commits it. After a group of guerillas takes a hostage at gunpoint in response to the murder of one of their number, Romero declares: 'Somebody has to have the courage to say, "Enough!"'

He comes though to sense that the government and military have the greater power to inflict harm, and therefore the greater moral imperative to break the cycle. When a young (fictional) campesino, Lucia (Reina), a quiet admirer of Romero's, is murdered, it triggers a chain of retaliations that results in Osuña being tortured to death in a military prison. His death speaks more loudy to Romero than his words did.

In the film, Romero's conversion to an absolute option for the poor — though stopping short of an unequivocal embrace of liberation theology — brings him to a literal crossroad, the site of Grande's assassination, where he falls to his knees and abandons himself to what he now sees as God's will. From that moment he commits himself wholly to publicly decrying government and military repression.

'In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression,' he preaches in a homily directed at the military forces and the government. These are the words that all but ensured his martyrdom. Romero is assassinated the very next day.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Oscar Romero, Jesuits, Liberation Theology, El Salvador, Raul Julia

 

 

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Existing comments

When I read this review I started thinking about the lead actor, Raul Julia, and the film "Kiss of the Spider Woman", in which he was superb. I didn't see "Romero" but wish I had.
Pam | 11 February 2015


Bravo Tim! I think I'll try and get "Romero" through the Brisbane City Council library system which is quite excellent. That is about the only way to see some of the films featured in your excellent reviews such as "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" up here. If there was a David Stratton Prize for Australian Film Critics I'd nominate you for it.
Edward Fido | 12 February 2015


The Roman Catholic Church "lagged" not the whole Church. Oscar Romero has been in the Calendar of the (admittedly far less significant) Anglican Church of Australia since 1995 (and Pope John XXIII since 1978). (Its Calendar does include some I'd rather not see in it- "Saint" Cyril of Alexandria associated at least to some extent with the murder of Hypatia, and Martin Luther who unlike Archbishop Romero turned in the wrong direction. His attacks upon the Jews contributed to terrible evils centuries later : he would not have condoned the latter but his words and deeds were remembered by the Nazis,) Statues at Westminster Abbey unveiled not long ago by the Queen include one of Oscar Romero and there is a statue of him also at the National Cathedral in Washington.
John Bunyan | 13 February 2015


Re St Cyril's "association" with murder of Hypatia, New Catholic Encyclopedia 2013 notes: "The persistent tradition, based unjustifiably on Socrates' account (Hist. eccl. 7.15) of the incident, that Cyril provoked or was otherwise responsible for the murder of the famous Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia, torn to pieces by a fanatical Christian mob in March of 415, lacks genuine foundation."
Father John George | 13 February 2015


Re #Anglican Canonisation: "Resolutions from 1958[Lambeth Conference] Resolution 79 The Book of Common Prayer - The Commemoration of Saints and Heroes of the Christian Church in the Anglican Communion Heroes of the Christian Church in the Anglican Communion The Conference is of the opinion that the following principles should guide the selection of saints and heroes for commemoration: (a) In the case of scriptural saints, care should be taken to commemorate men or women in terms which are in strict accord with the facts made known in Holy Scripture. (b) In the case of other names, the Kalendar should be limited to those whose historical character and devotion are beyond doubt. (c) In the choice of new names economy should be observed and controversial names should not be inserted until they can be seen in the perspective of history. (d) The addition of a new name should normally result from a wide-spread desire expressed in the region concerned over a reasonable period of time". #Catholic process: http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_jp-ii_apc_25011983_divinus-perfectionis-magister.html
Father John George | 15 February 2015


Cyril quarrelled with Hypatia but, yes, we don't have evidence of direct guilt. The murderers of Hypatia, however, did regard him as their leader. I rather think, however, that as an ill-tempered, quarrelsome and violent man, he hardly deserves his place in any Christian Calendar. Furthermore also drove out the Jews - so in that respect had a similar outlook as that of the later Luther and many other Christians who have been anti-Semitic - S.John Chrysostom just one other example. (Luther was not guilty of the Nazis' horrendous murders, but they found support for their attitudes in Luther's writings.)
John Bunyan | 15 February 2015


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