The first Hollywood feature film ever to be financed by the Roman Catholic Church was released twenty-five years ago on August 25, 1989. “Romero” starred the Puerto Rican Raul Julia (“Kiss of the Spiderwoman” and the “The Addams Family” franchise) as Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar A. Romero, and was directed by the Australian John Duigan. The writer was John Sacret Heart (TV’s “The West Wing”), and the producer was Paulist Pictures’ Fr. Ellwood E. Kiesel. “[I]ts religious origins notwithstanding,” the New York Times wrote, the film was “a frankly commercial venture aimed at a mass audience.” But unlike what happens in other movie sets, the cast and crew of “Romero” would gather each week to celebrate Mass, with the producer (Fr. Kiesel) as its celebrant.
A quarter century later, “Romero” still holds up, with an unusually reverent reception (e.g., 75% critical approval and 81% audience appreciation on RottenTomatoes), and it has undeniably made its mark culturally by elevating its subject to the iconic stature that seems best attained on the silver screen:
- Released before ten years had elapsed from Romero’s 1980 assassination, the film became essentially the first draft of the Romero legend, presenting what has become the dominant paradigm used in telling Romero’s story—complete with its motif of a bookish conservative who becomes a firebrand after experiencing a late life about-face, due to the murder of a close friend.
- The movie has been instrumental in making Romero familiar to audiences, especially in the English-speaking world. To be sure, Romero’s assassination made international headlines when it occurred at the end of the Cold War, but the movie presents an intimate portrait that resonates much more than a flashing headline, bringing viewers face to face with Raul Julia’s well-crafted and elegant portrayal of the modern martyr. The movie predated the institution of Archbishop Romero’s canonization cause in 1994, and the unveiling of Romero’s statue on the West façade of Westminster Abbey in London in 1998.
- Twenty five years on, “Romero” has taken its rightful place in the Catholic marquee. In 2004, the National Catholic Register and Faith & Family magazine ranked “Romero” no. 26 in their “Top100 Pro-Catholic Movies”, and when the U.S. Catholic Bishops “Fortnight for Freedom” was launched in 2012, the Register recommended watching “Romero” during the F4F. “Romero” is routinely listed in top Catholic film lists, including one released earlier this year.
The late Roger Ebert gave “Romero” modest praise, writing that “[t]he film has a good heart, and the Julia performance is an interesting one, restrained and considered.” However, Ebert qualified, “[t]he film's weakness is a certain implacable predictability: We can feel at every moment what must happen next, and the over-all trajectory of the film seems ordained even in the first few shots. As a result, the film doesn't stir many passions, and it seems more sorrowing than angry.” Although Ebert makes a valid criticism (which is why he is cited here), his final point seems to miss the mark. The real Romero was not angry, and in this way the movie paints an authentic portrait of its subject.
One thing “Romero” did not set out to be, and should never be mistaken to be, is history. It is very accurate as a character sketch, as a psychological examination, and as an emotional x-ray of the story it tells. But most of the characters onscreen have been renamed, probably to avoid defamation claims from the actual people, who were still living when the film was made. Many other characters are entirely fictionalized or, at best, represent composites of several historical figures, edited to simplify the story or move it along. There is nothing dishonest in this: the practice is the same in other films, like “For Greater Glory”/“Cristiada” (2012). Along the same lines, there are sequences and events that never happened (e.g., Romero being thrown in jail), but the dramatizations are allegorical and ring true, while other important events that did occur were left out (e.g., Romero’s meetings with the popes).
The most consequential editorial decision was arguably the determination to portray Romero as road-to-Damascus styled conversion. When the film opens, Romero is a retiring, reserved, and reviled cleric (“Anyone but Romero!” we hear young priests gripe amongst themselves, in his presence). He is shown to be chummy with the aristocrats. By the end of the film, Romero is an impassioned and fearless defender of human rights, beloved by the common poor, and now reviled by the oligarchs who were his friends at the beginning. The film itself is balanced in its treatment, but by setting Romero up in such stark contrasts, it invites abuse of the “conversion” model of Romero’s life. Take for instance, this description of the pre-conversion Romero: “he sided with the greedy landlords, important power brokers, and violent death squads.” That’s a grotesque mischaracterization—especially the part that Romero “sided with … death squads” is an obscene falsehood. But this base caricature emerges from the day-and-night about-face plot device so successfully implemented in this film.
A related storytelling decision that may have been a short-shrift was the decision to tell only the last three years of Romero’s life. Today, even among Romero admirers, people are generally only familiar with his years as archbishop. If you come across Romero quotes, they are almost certainly from his sermons during his three years as archbishop. Although he kept diaries and papers all of his life, only his diaries from his three years as archbishop have been published and translated. Arguably, to understand what made Romero tick, you have to understand who he really was before any conversion. Even if you accept the fact of the conversion, the nature and extent of it will only be understood if you have a sense of what Romero did with the first sixty years of his life, as opposed to just the last three.
Ironically, in these notes that ring off-key, “Romero” gains added relevancy, as it continues to represent the best reference point (and, often times, the source material) for understanding the myth of Romero, as opposed to the man. And even when it comes to approaching the truth about Romero, this highly stylized and slightly fictionalized account continues to rival and compare favorably to Romero documentaries that have come along, including the 2011 offering “Monseñor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero” and the 2012 Mexican documentary “El Cielo Abierto.” While these films recovered much of the historical detail that “Romero” left on the cutting room floor, they never rise to the sense of artistry and poetry by which every shot of “Romero” surpasses those other more factual accounts. (Óscar Romero was also portrayed in the 1986 Oliver Stone film “Salvador” and in the 1983 made-for-TV movie “Choices of the Heart;” “Romero” is superior to both as far as the portrayal of the Archbishop goes.)
Finally, as “Romero” turns twenty-five, it is striking how relevant it remains in terms of telling the world that persecution and martyrdom are real, even when they come tied-up in complex cultural and political contexts. The day’s headlines about the persecution of Christians in Iraq and other troubled regions are enough to prove the point that Romero’s story is not some anachronistic throwback to some bygone era—martyrs who are swept up in intricate political maelstroms exist today. Pope Francis’ remarks flying back to Rome after having beatified 124 martyrs in Korea are instructive. Martyrdom could be a death imposed “for confessing the credo or for performing the works that Jesus commands us to do for our neighbor,” the Pope said. “For me, Romero is a man of God.”
John Duigan’s 1989 film is still the best movie about “Romero” and still as urgent as it was 25 years ago.