Fr John Medcalf, who spent much of his working life in Latin America, reviews a :major new film on the life of the murdered Archbishop of San Salvador
DON'T see Romero on an empty stomach. Don't see Romero on a rainy day. It is a big film in most senses of the word and its release in Britain has been timed to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero's assassination.
Comparisons are inevitable. The film Becket showed us how an English archbishop was murdered in similar circumstances in 1170, but at :east the sight of Peter O'Toole as Henry II being horsewhipped by Canterbury monks gave film-goers a sense of satisfaction that some kind of justice was being seen to be done.
In A Man For All Seasons Thomas More's executioner, another Henry six times removed was never horsewhipped, but at least he was readily identifiable as the responsible party.
Gandhi made us all feel a little bit guilty for having swallowed such a lot of one-sided drivel about the fifth of the globe that was coloured pink on the mappa mundi that adorned British
classrooms when I was a boy.
The trouble with Romero is that it is contemporary. The Salvadoran archbishop's murderers are still alive and at large; they have probably never seen a horse-whip.
The title-role is played by Rail Julia, a Puerto Rican actor who has made his name on the New York stage and in films like Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Pendant and Tequila Sunrise. His only disadvantage is his height: the real Oscar Romero was quite short — more like Ben Kingsley. Apart from his structure, the likeness is uncanny, and the performance superb.
A noteworthy feature of this film is that it has been produced by a Catholic priest (Paulist Fr Ellwood Kieser) and partly funded by the 300 Catholic bishops of the USA. Those headteachers of Catholic schools who are afraid that this film might be "too political" should take heart from these facts and ensure that their pupils are warmly encouraged to see it and to discuss it. The Warner Brothers' endorsement should provide the seal of respectability if such were needed.
The contemporary nature of the subject accounts for what are to my mind the only flaws in the film. A few weeks before his death Archbishop Romero wrote an impassioned letter to the then US President Jimmy Carter, pleading with him to "stop the giving of military assistance to the Salvadoran government" and to "guarantee that your government will not intervene directly or indirectly with military, economic, diplomatic or other pressure to determine the fate of the Salvadoran people." The film understandably but wrongly exculpates the US government and appears to lay the entire blame at the door of the military junta and the upper-class elite it so unscrupulously defends. The trouble is that Jimmy Carter is still alive, and his successors in the White House didn't get where they are today by being horse-whipped and after all Warner Brothers have to mind their reputation.
Archbishop Romero is the stuff that great tragedies are made of. Whereas Thomas More and Gandhi always seemed to be living in a world peopled by heroes. Oscar Romero was described by somebody who knew him well as "a mouse become man–. He eventually found God in the tortured, mutilated faces of the poor. We who are mice can hope by his example to become man and woman.
I can imagine a day when the final flaw of the film will be rectified. The on-site location was in Mexico, an excellent
substitute for the real thing. For ten years the killing in El Salvador has gone on unabated, and continues at the present time. Romero is still a dirty word, a subversive word, in the country of his birth, to those who hold power. The film could not be made in that martyr's native land, nor will it be shown in its public cinemas until there is a change of government.
A day must surely come when some future Shaw, Shaffer or Shakespeare will be able to reenact in situ the life, death and resurrection of this great man. Horse-whips may be turned into plough-staffs and machine-guns into plough-shares.
In the meantime Ratil Julia's Romero is the cinematographic "must" of the year.
Next month is the tenth anniversary of Archbishop Romero 'S murder. We will mark the occasion with a special feature on his life and legacy.