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  • nickkarner

Romero (1989)

In Romero (1989), Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero (Raul Julia)’s strength lies not in his muscles, but in his convictions. He believes in decency and kindness, not conflict and fear. In his eyes, every human life is important and sacred. This comes in direct conflict with the callous and oppressive regime of El Salvador, whose scare tactics and brutality towards anyone who speaks out against the government stands in opposition to the message of peace and harmony that Romero teaches his followers. 

There is a moment in the film where Romero, wishing to hold his regular Sunday services, is told that the church has been turned into a soldiers’ barracks. Rather than allow him to remove the religious objects in order to worship elsewhere, the cruel guard annihilates the holy sacraments in a hail of gunfire. Dejected and shocked, Romero retreats, only to find his courage a moment later and, facing the real possibility of assassination, re-enters the church and begins to pray at the altar. Bullets whiz over his head, but he is undeterred. Forced out once again, this time he returns with his congregation, almost daring the soldier to murder all of these innocent parishioners who merely want to worship in God’s house.  Julia’s performance is fascinating. There is real terror in his eyes, yet also confusion at how another human being could treat his fellow man in this way.  He comes in peace, but this soldier sees violence as the only appropriate response.  

Much like the Southern Baptists who provided most of the financing for Edward D Wood Jr.’s Plan Nine From Outer Space, Romero was produced by Paulist Pictures, a company formed by a society of Roman Catholic priests. For the first time, a Catholic company was producing a major motion picture and they certainly swung for the fences.  This is, by all accounts, a real movie. For years, I’d always been under the impression that Romero was a TV movie, but seeing the Warner Brothers logo at the beginning clued me in to the fact that this wouldn’t be your average movie-of-the-week. Although the film does have a certain television flavor to it, the graphic images set it apart from the more sanitized fare you’d find on your local cable station.  

Written by John Sacret Young, the creator of China Beach and screenwriter for the harrowing Testament (1983), and directed by John Duigan, Romero opens in 1977 as citizens of El Salvador are being bussed in from other towns to vote in the presidential election. They face major obstacles as the government militia, claiming that the guerillas pose a dangerous threat to their safety, force the citizens off the bus. Father Rutilio Grande (Richard Jordan), with Romero in tow, announces that they will walk, prompting the soldiers to destroy the buses with machine guns. This is the first act of defiance against the government by a priest, and it’s not by Romero. You see, Romero is an apolitical, conservative priest, eternally afraid of rocking the boat. 

Grande, on the other hand, is an outspoken advocate for the people, beloved by many and dangerous to the powers that be.  Although fellow priests believe Grande could be an effective leader in the church, the position of Archbishop is bestowed upon Romero, a widely agreed-upon “safe” choice that will fall in line and not interfere with the government’s oppression. Initially, Romero is just that: An agreeable follower who caters to the rich and powerful, attends lavish banquets, and makes these phonies feel justification for their inaction regarding the state of their country.  On the same evening as one of these events, Father Grande is giving absolution in a town square when the National Guard suddenly arrives, demanding that the peaceful crowd disperse. They open fire, causing chaos and bloodshed.  Romero finally begins to understand the government’s attitude towards its people, but nothing can prepare him for March 12, 1977.

While giving a ride to some fellow countrymen, Father Grande is gunned down, along with a 72-year old man and a young child, outside of El Paisnal.  Romero, upon seeing the three bodies, particularly that of his friend Grande, is briefly stunned into silence. Against the protestations of members on his council, he cancels Mass to conduct a funeral for the three victims.  So begins Romero’s journey from the quiet, bookish country priest to an outspoken voice for the people, condemning the government’s actions.  

This sets off a chain of events, eventually leading to Romero’s assassination by a death squad, likely led by Major Roberto Arrietta. For Romero, he never wanted to dismantle the government or encourage the people to rise up against the dictatorial regime. He simply believed that human beings are better than all of this.  That compassion and love should triumph over oppression and greed.  Being in his own position of power, Romero attempts to make a difference. He arranges a secret meeting with the leaders of the guerrilla forces to secure the release of a well-connected prisoner. 

Unfortunately, this effort fails. When he attempts to broker a surrender during a hostage negotiation, he’s guaranteed the freedom and safety of the kidnappers, only to see them arrested, tortured, and murdered, including his friend Father Osuna. As he listens to Father Osuna’s cries of agony, Romero screams from his cell: “Stop! In the name of God, stop!  We’re human beings! We’re human beings!” Over and over again, his efforts to end the suffering of the people is quashed, but he never gives up his hope or faith in the goodness of humanity.

The late Raul Julia plays Romero as a man who is unlikely to have ever experienced the kind of rage and despair he is now facing on a daily basis.  It’s a modulated performance that draws the viewer in, exploring when and how Romero will break his silence.  By 1989, Julia was a movie star, but he’d never been able to successfully capitalize (at least in terms of box office numbers) on the breakout success of Kiss of the Spider Woman. Still, his importance as a Puerto Rican actor headlining feature films can’t be underestimated. He merely needed a vehicle in which his obvious talent could be translated into a financial success. This vehicle would, of course, be the first two Addams Family films, although Presumed Innocent (1990) was a massive hit around the world, even though he played second fiddle to Harrison Ford. Up until Spider Woman, he’d had major triumphs on Broadway, garnering four Tony nominations, including one for originating the role of Guido Contini in Tommy Tune’s Nine, a role later played in the film version by Daniel Day-Lewis. He was clearly a Broadway actor through and through, but after 1985’s Spider Woman, he wouldn’t return to Broadway until a limited run Man of La Mancha production in 1992, a pattern often occurring when theatre actors are lured by the bright lights of Hollywood.  As Gomez Addams, Julia could indulge in his extremely theatrical nature without consequence, creating an indelible character, perfectly in tune with Barry Sonnenfeld’s madcap film.  

In sharp contrast, Romero asks Julia to remain quiet, even overtly passive in order to make his transformation more powerful.  He’s a man of gentle humor, exemplified by a scene in which he receives valuable gifts from rich parishioners, but is most overjoyed when he receives a new pair of shoes from a fellow priest. After being brushed off by a personal secretary, Romero crashes a fancy lunch for dignitaries hosted by a powerful general to appeal for the safety of his fellow priests, who have been targeted, tortured, and murdered. The general, thinking he can manipulate this weak-willed Archbishop, rattles off an explanation that Father Grande and his ilk were inciting and agitating the people, to which Romero replies, “You are a liar.” You can see Julia suppressing his anger to maintain his composure. It’s been said that no one could scream like Gene Wilder. The same could be said of Raul Julia. When he is finally pushed too far by the death and misery that he sees on a daily basis, he raises his voice in an almost primal scream of accusation.  He condemns those who would inflict harm on anyone, let alone the innocent. It’s a tragedy that a talent such as Julia’s was taken so soon, but it's heartening that with his success in The Addams Family movies, he’d get to experience the success, albeit briefly, of being a Hollywood star.

Richard Jordan plays Father Grande with passion but he also sadly represents the unfortunate white-washing compromises that have often taken place due to the financial realities associated with film distribution. Search for an image of the real Father Grande and you’ll find that Richard Jordan bears absolutely no resemblance to the late priest. This, of course, is a movie, but the real issue is that Richard Jordan was a white man portraying a Salvadoran priest.  The harsh reality is that although black face and yellow face have thankfully been (mostly) eliminated, film distributors need famous names to sell a movie. They need to be able to get people in those theatre seats and the only way of doing that is to get well-known actors to put on the poster. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that they could have found a famous enough Salvadoran actor to play the role, unless they were willing to go with an unknown performer, but then the other problem with the film would come into play.

The movie is in English. I have zero problems watching a movie with subtitles, but others do. Oftentimes, a foreign filmmaker or production company dreams of conquering the American box office because that is truly where money and success lies. A movie can do very well all over the world but still be regarded as a financial failure if it doesn’t perform well in America. If the makers of Romero had indeed found Salvadoran actors for the main roles, it’s likely the film would be in Spanish, prompting the shrinking of its potential audience. This would include the large number of religious movie-goers likely to be interested in this story who would refuse to see something with anything other than the language they speak, Passion of the Christ notwithstanding. The filmmakers are covering their bases which results in an acceptable lack of realism that the viewer simply must ignore. I’m a big fan of Tom Tykwer’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006), but I often wonder if it would have been stronger with a French cast and made by an equally visionary director like Jean-Pierre Jeunet. 

The film has its heart in the right place and John Duigan’s direction doesn’t shy away from the atrocities committed by the soldiers and the death squads, including the intercutting of actual victim photographs. The scenes of bodies being discovered amongst rubble and garbage, complete with birds feasting on the remains, are very effective. A shot of children discovering a dead, naked body on the street is chilling. The film does suffer from its resemblance to a TV movie with its composed camera work during dialogue scenes. The massacre at the town square and the murder of a political activist is handled with much more energy, employing a handheld camera approach that would likely have been employed by someone like Paul Greengrass had the film been made today.  John Duigan, having broken through a couple years prior with The Year My Voice Broke (1987), came from independent filmmaking and was likely the reason the movie was willing to go so far with its imagery.

Romero should be appreciated as a well-meaning but slightly heavy-handed religious drama with appropriately disturbing images and a rare central performance from an actor who only had a few short years left on this planet. 


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