Oscar Romero (1917-1980) was a humble priest who served as Archbishop of San Salvador in the small Central American nation of El Salvador, at the onset of that country’s bloody civil war from 1979-1992. But though initially viewed as a safe choice by the Vatican, he would prove to be more than just a “simple priest”.
Speaking out against injustice, violence, repression, and torture, even at the cost of his own life; Oscar Romero became one of the most effective and vocal opponents of the political atrocities engulfing his country. It would ultimately lead to his assassination by a military death squad. This tragic story was one that was emotionally brought to film just nine years after his death simply entitled Romero. Now in the wake of Oscar Romero’s new sainthood; the film like the man himself deserves to be appreciated once again.
Starring the late great Raul Julia, Romero functions both as a biography and an urgent work of political activism. Julia initially showcases quiet restraint as his Romero sees the horrors around him, but soon becomes an increasingly vocal and unflinching barrier to the government-sanctioned death squads. Although the film does not offer a wider background into the Salvadoran Civil War, the climate of fear and violence and the ordinary citizens caught in the middle is strikingly presented.
If director John Duigan is seen to take sides it is only against those who committed acts of evil, whether they be on the right or left of the political spectrum. As it was with Oscar Romero who made no political distinction between those were doing the killing, instead using the same rallying cry for everyone (“Stop the repression!”).
Released in 1989 the film marked the first major release to be financed by the Catholic production company, Paulist Pictures; which would have a rather mixed bag of success in producing more faith-based films.
Featuring a hauntingly melancholic score by Lebanese composer Gabriel Yared (Oscar winner for TheEnglishPatient), the tone of Romero is undoubtedly one of sadness; yet through it all the beacon of hope remains. The assassination of Romero as he was celebrating Mass did indeed frighten, but it also emboldened many Salvadoran people to continue the fight for justice, often meeting the same fate as the Archbishop.
Screenwriter John Sacret Young respectfully tracks Romero’s journey from an unconfrontational man to a man undaunted by the dangers around him; the movie does have a certain amount of predictability as it moves along, but still, there seems to be a naive hope for audiences that everything will turn out for the best in the end. When the tragic conclusion comes it leaves us all with profound sadness, but more so an incentive to follow Romero’s example.
For a long time, the movie represented the only real widespread recognition for Oscar Romero outside of Latin America. A recognition that was most conspicuously absent and ignored by the Catholic Church he represented, until now.
After years of delays and internal church politics, on October 14th, 2018 Oscar Romero was finally declared a saint; recognized as a martyr and a champion of the poor, and killed for defending the defenseless.
Yet despite the church’s slow efforts to acknowledge his ultimate sacrifice, the Oscar Romero story was not forgotten by El Salvadorans and anyone who believes in the promotion of civil justice. His tragic life story was movingly dramatized in an often forgotten and overlooked film (in ways like the man himself), but that is now ready to be reappraised and rightfully appreciated as Oscar Romero is.
Like the man, the film Romero is not perfect, but its noble intentions and emotional tackling of its distressing subject matter make it a respectable and important work of cinema. As Oscar Romero now officially takes his rightful praise in Catholic circles, so too can we admire his ultimate sacrifice and the film that sheds an enlightening lens on this dark chapter of 20th-century history.