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Despite flaws, “Romero” is an inspiring portrayal of an often misunderstood Saint

A review of Romero: Collector’s Edition, a recently remastered version of the 1989 film, starring the late Raúl Juliá as the now canonized Archbishop Oscar Romero.

MPAA Rating: PG-13
USCCB Rating: A -II
Reel Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Like Maximillian Kolbe or Mother Theresa, Archbishop Oscar Romero has emerged in recent decades as one of the most beloved saints of what St. Pope John Paul II termed “our difficult century”. Romero was a model of holiness, peace, and calm during a period of hate, anger, and turmoil. In 1989, Paulist Productions – the film and television branch of the Isaac Hecker’s Paulist Fathers – produced their first theatrical picture, a biopic titled simply Romero. The movie was recently remastered for a Collector’s Edition, released to commemorate the Archbishop’s canonization on October 14th. I missed Romero the first time around because I was three years old, so this is a great opportunity to finally see the film.

The latter half of the 20th century was awful for many Latin American countries, torn apart by political upheaval and ideological clashes. It was a sea of corruption and violence, and poor El Salvador was certainly no exception. In the 1970s and 80s, the small country was ruled by alternating groups of wealthy elites with connections to the military. Both fascism and communism flourished, with ordinary people caught in the crossfire.

Oscar Romero (Raúl Juliá) spent most of his formative years in Rome studying for the priesthood, earning him the reputation as a “bookworm”. Even after being appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar was slow to respond to the impending civil war. Yet when a close priest friend of his was murdered by government militia for protecting the rights of the people, Romero broke his silence. He spoke out against torture and political assassinations, even ordering members of the military to disobey their commanders if they ask them to go against “the law of God”. He became a champion of human rights, demanding fair wages for farmers and religious freedom for the Church. On March 24th, 1980 – after only three months of being Archbishop – he was shot dead while celebrating Mass for a group of hospital workers.

One common criticism of Romero, even during his life, was that he was a practitioner of Liberation Theology, aspects of which have since been condemned by the Vatican. While it is true that some Salvadorian priests worked directly with left-wing guerrillas – a fact the film does not shy away from – Romero himself was always rooted firmly in the Church and condemned violence on all sides. [See the recent CWR feature article "Three Common Myths about Archbishop Oscar Romero” by Filip Mazurczak.] The film details how he worked to free government officials kidnapped by the Communists and disapproved of priests being armed. Rather, he understood what the Church has always taught: Christ identifies with the poor and oppressed, not the rich and mighty. Every human is loved by God and deserves dignity, but the judgement of the nations (Matt 25:31-45) makes it clear that God wants men to provide for the needs of the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and the stranger. I am reminded of a phrase my father would often repeat when a guest would express frustration about some political situation: “if you are getting criticism from both the right and the left, you are probably doing something good.”

The life story of Romero is compelling and inspirational, but that is often hard to see in a film that, quite frankly, has not aged well. Much of this rests with Juliá’s performance, who presents Romero as stiff, confused, and aloof. Even as his character changes, Juliá remains relatively monotone, lacking the ordinary humor and rootedness one often associates with a saint. Besides the protagonist, the acting is overly dramatic and sensational, while the pacing is uneven, being slow for most of the film, then suddenly lightening fast in its last few moments. Had this story been produced in today’s cinematic renaissance (at least in craftsmanship), it would have worked out better. Hopefully, some future filmmaker will one day revisit the subject.

When Romero premiered, the New York Times characterized the film as “a textbook.” This may have been intended as a slight but nonetheless highlights the movie’s main strength. Romero works remarkably well in the classroom as hagiography, but much less well as Saturday afternoon entertainment. Yet if the goal of art is to inspire man to greatness, then Romero does the job.

St. Oscar Romero, protector of the poor and champion of peace, pray for us!

About Nick Olszyk 109 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.

4 Comments

  1. “One common criticism of Romero, even during his life, was that he was a practitioner of Liberation Theology.” We shouldn’t be too interested in common criticism. What I would sincerely like to know is what was the devotional status of the El Salvadoran priests and people under the care of Archbishop Romero. What did he walk into and have to confront on the spiritual level? Did the archbishop have a large number of rebellious priests given over to the theology of liberation and was his flock not attending Mass and not understanding or practicing the faith and did he institute a reform for shepherding their souls? This should be the primary sign of “Servant of God” for a bishop to move forward in the cause of sainthood. Now if on the other hand Archbishop Romero was shepherding a flock of obedient and faithful priests and people (so that no immediate reform was necessary) and who were being unjustly treated (especially for their Christian justice) and he laid down his life for them, then this also should qualify as being a Servant of God, etc. However, any priest or bishop who puts the social reform of and for the people before the spiritual reform of his people, parish, diocese, or country, should not be credited as Servant of God. Now I am not indicating that Romero did this; only that (going forward) we need to have a correct criteria for the making of bishop-saints or else the church will suffer well into the future with social-reformer bishops who do little to reform the souls they are primarily called to shepherd but are tempted to rather be a Servant of the People rather than a Servant of God – which never goes well for the Church.

  2. “Often misunderstood.”

    So OF COURSE Francis is drawn to his cause.

    At any rate, Kenneth Woodward has a fair account of Romero in his “Making Saints,” a very good read.

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