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The Message in Romero

By Nate Laver, with comments by Mehnaz Choudhury and Patrick Cucci

[1] Can film as a medium make any sense of History? Most of the time that seems not even to be the issue. So-called "historical" movies such as Pocahontas and Glory have been attacked for straying from the recorded facts of the events they portray in an attempt to tell a more attractive story. This practice has its roots in the movie-making process. Hollywood exists to make money, do not be fooled. Movies cost millions of dollars to film, print, release, and promote. Therefore, producers have little choice but to create movies that will appeal to as many moviegoers as possible in an effort to earn back the investment. To this end, moviemakers feel the need to take liberties with plot, characterizations, and historical accuracy to create a product that will sell. Hollywood favors drama and conflict, so when an historical story lacks one of these elements, it is often simply added for the sake of appeal. This practice falls under great scrutiny by those with a serious interest in the events that these movies portray. Because the better part of American viewers expect and demand stories told with the Hollywood spin, those films that attempt to stick doggedly to the facts generally do poorly at the box-office.

[2] Many historical films, however, have found success while staying true to the facts. These films oftentimes come from producers, directors, and actors with a genuine concern for the events they deal with. Spike Lee certainly had a pointed interest in the making of Malcolm X, as did Tom Hanks in making Saving Private Ryan. Hanks' emotional tie to the movie surfaced in his speech at the podium of the Oscars this past year when he urged Americans to support our veterans and reminded us of the gift they have given to our country. Passion such as Hanks' from within the making of the movie can provide an energy and vibrancy that appeals even more than cheap Hollywood tricks. Either way, the same dangers apply, because passion usually fosters strong opinions that create biases in recounting the facts. Biographies tend to radiate greatness; war movies tend to take sides; racial movies tend to invoke sympathy. The same passion that motivates these people to make historical movies can also lead to a perversion of the story's historical facts.

[3] A deeper problem arises when history itself has chosen to take sides. Historians toil over the presentation of past events to keep them as neutral and thorough as possible, yet they realize that complete historical accuracy can never truly be achieved. There are just too many variables in history, too many viewpoints, too many questions. In the end, the only things that can be presented are the facts that are backed up with evidence. The barriers to accuracy do not stop with factual evidence, however. People are reluctant to tell stories that make themselves look bad, so historians run into evidence that has been skewed to one side, or that has simply been suppressed by people or groups that wish to remain unexposed. Our own government has a simple way of denying the public factual evidence by classifying documents or exposing only the part of the truth that will justify its position. When this type of historical uncertainty underlies an historical movie, it becomes even harder to draw comparisons between the movie and the actual events.

[4] Every one of the aforementioned pitfalls must be addressed when examining the 1989 film, Romero. In an effort to stick to the facts of Romero's life, the filmmakers deny themselves a potentially larger audience that could have been attracted with more Hollywood charisma. Despite the passion of the producers to tell the truth about this man's life, the movie clearly takes the side of the movie's hero and namesake. The task of telling the entire truth, in this case, comes shackled with a boatload of uncertainties concerning the actual facts of history. The filmmakers seem to have decided to leave most of the evidence damaging to the U.S. government out of the movie, which leaves a glaring hole in the narrative to any insight toward the involvement of the U.S. in the social, political, and economic atmosphere of El Salvador. These shortcomings are not surprising for a movie made in Hollywood by a religious group about one of its own heroes who took sides against the U.S. government. In its attempt to canonize the Archbishop through film, this movie fails to deal with some of the larger and more important issues that create the environment that Romero portrays. This movie's weaknesses provide a provocative segue into a discussion on the ability of film to represent history. (see comment by Mehnaz Choudhury)

[5] After all, film must be viewed as entertainment first. Movies do come from the entertainment industry. Yet, according to Carlos E. Cortes, "Movies do more than entertain. They also teach, whether or not individual filmmakers have such intentions or pretensions" (53). The makers of Romero seem to have honed in on this second purpose at the expense of the first. As evidenced by the poor reviews and ticket sales, this movie fails to bring its point home to the American audience it targets because it never reaches them. Romero was missing the entertainment value that Americans seek when they go to the movies, which cost its makers their ultimate goal of educating Americans about Romero and the struggle he came to embody. (see comment by Mehnaz Choudhury)

[6] Breaking Romero down as a work of art reveals the failings that cost it viewership. Despite an excellent performance from Raul Julia in the role of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the movie is full of miscastings and stiff acting. Richard Jordan plays Father Rutilio Grande, looking more Saxon than Salvadoran, a problem that overshadows his otherwise decent performance. About half of the bishops look the part, but most of them seem to read from cue-cards. The devious Lieutenant Columa is played with cheesy smugness and most of the extras act like cardboard cut-outs. The viewer never gets to see more than one side of any character other than Romero. The worst instance of this weakness occurs, again, with Lieutenant Columa, who comes off like a cartoon villain. A conscientious viewer may look past these glaring faults, but an uninformed viewer would find that the poor acting dissolves the movie's intended message.

[7] The triteness of the supporting roles mirrors the impatience of the plot. The story seems to rip by at a pace that assumes the viewer could lose interest at any moment. Romero touches on many issues but does not cover many of them in depth. As the title suggests, the story centers around one man's struggle within himself to find the will of God and take care of the people of his country. The film does a good job of documenting Romero's life, yet most Americans had never heard of Romero, so biographical accuracy was not a draw as it was in Malcolm X. American viewers may have found more interest in learning about the role of the U.S. in the revolution in El Salvador. One of the blessings of living in this country is our ability to speak freely about our government. People find the revealing of cover-ups very interesting, as shown by the strong media attention that Watergate and the Iran-Contra Affair received. Unfortunately for Romero, the center of attention remains on Romero's personal struggles with the government and the Church; all other issues that affect this struggle receive only tangential or brief mention. Whether in the interest of diplomacy or brevity, Romero fails to address the issues that Americans may have taken more interest in. (see comment by Mehnaz Choudhury)

[8] Piquing the interest of the American audience requires a film to offer the proper type of entertainment. First, and most obvious, the fact that Romero was made in English shows that the film targeted Americans, not Salvadorans. A more accurate depiction of Romero's life could have been illustrated in Spanish, but this would have sacrificed all but those who already had enough interest in the story to struggle through subtitles. Romero, however, fails to draw the larger American audience that prefers high quality entertainment. Most times, high quality equates with a high budget. For a low-budget movie such as Romero to succeed with the limited promotion it could afford, it would have had to bring something spectacular to the table in terms of story, acting, or reviews. Romero received only part of one of these necessities with the acting of Raul Julia and, therefore, failed to get its message across to the American public. Unfortunately for Romero, the story was one that many Americans were unaware of. Indeed, this was the very reason the movie was made. Yet the filmmaker's poor use of the medium deterred reception of the message.

[9] The movie's content and quality stems from its original source. When studying this film one has to ask why it was made in the first place. Motivated by a desire to spread the word about their hero, a group of Paulist Priests, headed by John Sacret Young, pulled together the funding and drew up the screenplay for Romero. The viewpoint of these priests, unavoidably, comes out through the telling of Romero's story. It seems as if, in the film, Romero can do no wrong. He never goes through anything near a moment of moral weakness. Romero's dilemmas take him through increasingly higher degrees of piety, morality, and goodness. His ascension throughout the movie roots always in his faith. When he faces a choice, he turns to God for guidance. When he asks advice from earthly sources, it always comes from within the church. Clearly the story of an archbishop cannot be told without showing a strong connection to faith, yet this biography seems to dwell on Christianity to the exclusion of any other influence. Characters in the movie who do not accept the Church are all on the side of evil, and no character makes an act of kindness without the church behind them. In disregarding any other positive influence but faith, the filmmakers paint the Church as the real hero of the story, as if the only reason Romero was the great man he became was because he kept faith. (see comment by Mehnaz Choudhury)

[10] As the "tellers" of the story, the Paulist Priests use Romero's faith as a device to justify reverence and awe for Romero. This movie is what James Loewen describes as "heroification" at its most blatant, yet it goes unnoticed because of the hero's association with the Church. As the story plays out, Romero has no other logical or moral choice but to speak out against the atrocities that the government has been committing. The viewer is then expected to swallow down the image of a saintly man with no shortcomings other than his lack of saintliness from the very start. The filmmakers use Romero's close adherence to the teachings of Jesus Christ as a crutch, yet they may have seen it as a building block for the characterization. Romero represents the ultimate good soul in the storytellers' eyes, a point of view that every viewer of the movie may not share. As a piece of history, the film loses universality in its partiality, yet it may be argued that the church has the right to tell the story of its own hero. Still, Romero comes off as a man who did a great service to the people of his country because he followed the teachings of the Church--a double good for both mankind and God.

[11] Coming back to the film as a product of Hollywood, the strong bond between Catholicism and heroification also works as a dramatic device to define Romero's inner voice. Christianity gives his character a reason for acting the way he does. In fact, it is the only reason he ever has in the movie for doing anything. This movie, then, may be an attempt not only to canonize the hero but also to justify the entire faith. Romero becomes the embodiment of Christianity in his struggle to liberate the people of his country, therefore making Christianity the key to justice. In the scheme of the film, the audience can accept the character because there already exists a basis for his behavior; he simply acts upon the template laid out by the Bible. In the process of inspiring respect for the main character, the filmmakers make the first step toward the credibility of the main characterization using their own agenda, a practice a true historian would discourage. Instead of taking the objective point of view, the movie draws conclusions in its presentation that righteousness comes from the church. Using the dramatic technique of playing off the audience's presumptions about priests, the film loses the objectivity strident history demands.

[12] Presenting Archbishop Romero's story from this passionate point of view shames history upon its viewers. The major religious vein the script follows forces the viewer to have a deep sense of right and wrong by the end of the film. The viewer becomes so entrenched on the side of righteousness that by the time Romero falls it seems inconceivable that any human on earth could ever find a justification for this heinous crime. Not to say that many viewers would intrinsically feel sympathetic to murderers, but the presentation has a serious effect on the viewers' reactions. In this movie, Romero's murder appears as an act of evil-intentioned violence, yet had a death squad on the side of the guerrillas taken out Lieutenant Columa a very different set of emotions would have emerged from the audience. The simple facts of history may yield a similar reaction to the murder of Romero, yet the movie takes measures to intensify the emotions that the filmmakers intended for their audience to have. (see comment by Patrick Cucci)

[13] Choosing clear sides on the issues involved in this film turns it into as much a sermon as a piece of biographic history. Film provides a powerful medium for past events to come alive because the viewer can attach emotions and opinions to the characters involved. In the case of Romero, this power clearly takes on the role of creating biases. Everything from the writing of the script to the reading of the lines builds Romero up as a likable person, and, conversely, brings Lieutenant Columa across as a sinister malefactor. The character of Columa is based on the infamous leader of the Salvadoran military death squads and leader of ARENA (National Republican Alliance), Roberto D'Aubuisson. Regardless of each man's real-life personality, in this film Romero has charisma and passion, while Columa (D'Aubuisson) coldly calculates his evil schemes. Whether these descriptions befit the men behind the characters seems not to matter to the filmmakers.

[14] Historical adherence would have created a problem for any group attempting to recreate the situation in El Salvador in the late 1970's. The film presents a number of events that are generally accepted to have happened, but details have never been fully confirmed. Uncertainty about facts in the movie especially apply to the murders of Father Rutilio Grande and Romero, as full investigations were never carried out due to stalling and cover-ups by both the Salvadoran and U.S. governments. Even more indeterminate are the many things that the movie chose not to address concerning the U.S. government's role in the whole Salvadoran conflict. The movie only touches on issues involving the U.S. when Romero gives his speech asking President Carter to stop giving military aid to El Salvador. This brief mention is the film's only reference to the fact that the U.S. took sides with the military against which Romero struggled. Our involvement, on what is now generally held to have been on the wrong side, was a source of embarrassment for our government and efforts were made to conceal the extent of our aid to the Salvadoran military by classifying documents. Aid to the Salvadoran military regime included, among other things, the training of military assassins in the U.S. at the "School of the Americas." These men whom we trained are believed to have been the same men who comprised the D'Aubuisson death squads, such as the one that murdered Romero.

[15] The film avoids issues that would damage the reputation of the U.S. government. To take on those issues may have diluted the filmmakers' emphasis on Romero as a man and as a Christian hero. In the spirit of Romero himself, the movie dwells on religious and moral issues to the conscious exclusion of anything political. The political side could have made for a more compelling story for Americans to see, however. The real reason Romero was a man most Americans never heard of is because our government deliberately kept the entire situation quiet. The American public was kept pacified by our government's claim that the Salvadoran government was a democratic institution that had its hands full fighting off a small Communist rebellion. In fact, the rebellion comprised the vast majority of the Salvadoran population, only a handful of whom were Communists or Marxists. Faced with a choice, the U.S. government chose to act on its fear of Communism rather than help the people regain their human rights. In retrospect, it seems that the government made the wrong decision and tried to cover it up to avoid embarrassment.

[16] This mistake came to the attention of Americans as a result of Romero's assassination. Few materials on El Salvador exist prior to 1980, yet, following Romero's death in March of that year, a slew of new materials were released in the U.S. Most of these books include a history of the country's civil unrest, taking a clearly pro-rebellion stance. Many of them question our government's refusal to support human rights in the years before the murder of the archbishop. The idea for this film was spawned in these years of explosive interest, yet its release did not come until 1989 due to the considerable time it took the priests to raise the money necessary to make a feature length film. The early 1980's brought a renewed concern in America not only for the unrest in El Salvador, but all across Central America where similar situations had been occurring such as the Sandinista / Contra conflict in Nicaragua.

[17] What this film does manage to bring across, in terms of a snapshot of the situation in El Salvador, is just as relevant and compelling today as it was when the film was made. Despite any other agendas the movie may have brought with it, it does paint a horrifying picture of the human rights violations the Salvadoran government made a practice of committing. The movie gives a sampling of the many heinous crimes of the military, including abducting people from their homes, assassinating political enemies, fixing democratic elections, opening fire on peaceful demonstrations, and taking political prisoners. These crimes against humanity shown in El Salvador occur all over the world, and as the "world police" the U.S. constantly faces decisions about sacrificing American lives to protect foreign lives. Romero, for all its faults, shows a poignant example of a situation that our government chose to manipulate from afar without the full knowledge of the American public. In the case of El Salvador, fear of Communism won out over protection of human rights. While Communism no longer threatens our government, the idea that an ideology could take precedence over human lives remains applicable to our world going into the year 2000. (see comment by Patrick Cucci)

[18] For those who do manage to see Romero, a world of violence and secrecy is uncovered. The viewer must face the facts of the situation portrayed in El Salvador and realize that El Salvador is only one of many countries that faces this type of ruthless violence. As the most powerful country in the world, the United States bears the burden of claiming partial responsibility for any human rights atrocities in the world that our government knew about but did not act to prevent. Some consistent basis of judgment must apply, because when our own political ideology is placed before the right to life that we believe every human being is born with, then we make our decision as shiftable as the political climate of the world at any given time. Our government has been accused of intervening only when economic or political gains are at stake. When we are faced with the reality of the situations that occur, it becomes harder to turn our collective cheek and trust that our government will make the correct decision. Faced with the horror of the Salvadoran situation, one has to wonder how such a thing could happen so close to U.S. soil without the knowledge of the general public. Above any religious or moral message, Romero teaches us that it is up to us to educate ourselves about what is happening in the world so that instead of leaving the decision to the government, we can take control with popular opinion and become the driving force behind our government's decisions.


Mehnaz Choudhury (June 2003)

What Salvador highlights is the importance of memory to our historical identity. What is most problematic about the film is its ameri-centric vision of the civil unrest--not only is the movie told from the viewpoint of a rogue news reporter, the narrative seems haunted by what Walter Lafeber calls the "specter of Vietnam." One of the problems in making the story of Salvador an indictment of American involvement is that the memory of the civil war becomes more an American memory, and when Oliver Stone directs a movie about the revolution in El Salvador, the film becomes colored by his memories of Vietnam, creating an even more ameri-centric view of events. In a particular scene in the film, Richard Boyle and John Cassidy, another photojournalist are attempting to photograph an attack on a peasant village and a fighter plane guns down Cassidy. In a scene that is reminiscent of several Vietnam movies and foretelling several of the moments in Stone's Platoon, Boyle mourns while holding the bleeding body of his friend. Cassidy hands him the film from his camera reminding the audience that hope can exist, mainly in the hands of artists--men like Stone. In many ways, the American involvement in El Salvador was a repeat of the bloody events in Vietnam--however, Stone's movie seems to hold a mirror up to the director's and the American nation's memories of Vietnam in order to articulate the atrocities in El Salvador. If we are to criticize American news-viewers for not caring about certain issues of foreign policy, should we not also criticize the fact that we only understand and discuss moments in other nation's histories when they are relevant to our own history or our own people?

Mehnaz Choudhury (June 2003)

As Nathan writes in his review, while Stone does more with the role of the U.S. in the Central American situation, he uses this as a ploy to also play up our sympathies in an "americentric" way. The film does show brutal rape-murders, but only those of four white American nuns (1:16:55). The character of Cathy Moore, a Catholic lay worker references one of four nuns who were dragged out of their car, raped, shot at close range and then buried in a large grave. The scene is horrific, and we see Cathy cross herself while a gunman aims his weapon at her head. The scene dissolves to their deteriorating bodies being pulled out of the mass grave as villagers and news reporters look on. The attack is horrific; however, it is interesting that Stone chooses to depict the deaths of these particular innocents in graphic clarity. We see a nun's crisp white shirt ripped exposing her breasts, and her skin and shirt are in sharp contrast to the darkness of the woods and the brown skin of her attackers. The camera pans over the faces of the attackers and lingers over a particular man, whose dark hair is tied back in a ponytail, and whose features are similar to the faces of the native population of El Salvador. We see him literally foaming at the mouth, dribbling spit onto the body of the woman he is raping, while her face remains offscreen, screaming and crying. Cathy does not cry out; she is held by down by one man, while another rapes her, but her face remains stoic as they beat her and remove her glasses. This scene reminds us of cultural fear of white women being violated by brown men, and the film in its americentric vision reminds us that El Salvador is a place where nuns, even American nuns, are at the mercy of savage brutality. It should be obvious that the rapists' actions are also oppressive; however, the film does not attempt to connect their actions to the brutality of their situation but instead connects it to the inherent savageness of El Salvador. Even when Boyle and Cassady are at a mass burial ground, they are surrounded by bodies that are not decomposing or particularly disgusting to look at, but even the few glimpses we see of the nun's bodies show us decomposition and some mutilation. The hesitancy on Stone's part to show these bodies in full view, after we are shown an entire mass burial ground, should remind the viewer the price of creating a movie that attempts to indict American involvement in El Salvador from an American perspective. We are never shown the mutilated bodies of the countless Salvadoran women who were brutally raped, mutilated, and murdered--instead, we see the typical over-sexualization of Latin women through the various hooker figures and Richard's young love interest, Maria. We move from Stone expunging American guilt over Vietnam by creating a Vietnam-like narrative in Salvador, but also garnering sympathy for the Salvadorans by highlighting their victimhood and their otherness.

Mehnaz Choudhury (June 2003)

Nathan raises many important issues here. His approach to reading the movie stems from the belief that film has a responsibility to fill in the gaps in our knowledge about history. However, it is surprising that he considers one of the weaknesses of the film to be its focus on Romero's life instead of focusing on U.S. involvement in the region. Although I understand Nathan's complaint, I would assert that this would be an americentric view of history, since by focusing on American involvement more than the figure of Romero, the film would only attempt to acknowledge American history, versus a history that acknowledges El Salvador's national identity as well. Even though showing American involvement would be a critique of American foreign policy, it would also assert that until the Americans entered El Salvador "there weren't larger and more important issues" already in the nation.

Mehnaz Choudhury (June 2003)

I would argue that this is subjective, as I did find the movie entertaining. Romero's closest counterpart, Salvador by director Oliver Stone, also did poorly at the box office until it received Oscar nominations and awards. One could argue that Romero doesn't reach American viewers not because it isn't entertaining, but because Americans aren't really interested in issues of foreign policy that they do not have a personal/national stake in, or aren't invested in positive portrayals of leaders of other countries. Unlike the positive portrayal of Salvadoran culture and people in Romero, Stone's Salvador caters to traditional views of the (Latin) other as drunkards, overly sexualized, uncivilized, dirty and chaotic.

Mehnaz Choudhury (June 2003)

Again, this points to the problem of americentrism. In the Reel American History mission statment, the manifesto reminds us "If we are to guard ourselves against the guardians of memory, we must challenge reel American history," and, even more importantly, "It matters who tells our stories, what they tell, and why." Nathan's argument suggests it doesn't really matter if the story we are told or the memories we guard attempt to point out several sides of historical issues--instead, Americans need stories and memories that are somehow directly connected to them and their people, even if those memories relate to the fact that we were responsible for several atrocities in other nations. It matters that the story told is about a Salvadoran priest because if it is the responsibility of Reel History to challenge history, we must challenge our americentrism and care about issues that do not directly concern us.

Mehnaz Choudhury (June 2003)

I do not agree with Nathan's argument that the film "dwell[s] on Christianity to the exclusion of any other influence." The central dilemma that Romero seems to face is the separation he sees between the Church and politics. When accepting his position as Archbishop, Romero tells his audience that the Church must remain in the "center," suggesting that by doing so the Church does not take sides with right wing or left wing forces. However, over the course of the film Romero realizes there is no "center"--his original politics place him in many ways on the side of the wealthy bourgeoisie that he is speaking to, and he realizes that any decision the Church makes is a "political" one that is inseparable from religious doctrine.

However, Nathan's point that the filmmakers paint the church as the hero is extremely interesting--the Church and Romero are depicted in glowing terms; however, as El Salvadorian history reveals the introduction of Catholic dogma to the native population of the country was not always smooth and mirrored the violence with which the wealthy population in the 70's would arrange death squads to kill numerous peasants. This paradox is not confronted in the film since it would make the Church look bad, but there are hints of similar unrest. Arista Zelada, a wealthy wife of a slain government official, requests a private baptism for her child away, so she will not have to share a public ceremony with "Indians" (1:08:10). Romero could have explored the roots of the Civil War if it had explored this racial dimension of the unrest.

Patrick Cucci (Feb. 2009)

I would not say that history is shamed on its viewers at all. What justification need there be for such a crime. It was absolutely heinous on every level. Mentioning a paralleled murder of Lt. Columa by a death-squad is irrelevant, because it never happened. Facts are facts; Oscar Romero was gunned down while leading a mass. Furthermore, his assassination followed those of fellow priests within Central America itself, including Fr. Rutilio Grande. It is an unavoidable coincidence that sides with Hollywood that it happened this particular way. As dramatic as the scene was portrayed with the use of sound effects, reverberations, and slow motion, it did happen. To any bystander it was undoubtedly emotional and chilling witnessing their religious leader gunned down in cold blood, in a location thought to be a place of sanctuary and peace.

Patrick Cucci (Feb. 2009)

Laver's mention about a snapshot of El Salvador's situation is a valid one. Within that snapshot as well, I would argue that it would have been useful, money and time permitting, to have even included Romero's funeral ceremony in the film. Historical accounts cite Romero's funeral as one of, if not the largest demonstration inside of El Salvador during that time. More than 50,000 people gathered in the cathedral square in San Salvador to mourn. A newspaper headline taken directly from the Washington Post wrote, "40 Killed in San Salvador; 40 Killed at Rites for Slain Prelate; Bombs, Bullets Disrupt Archbishop's Funeral." Romero's death proved not to be enough for the murderers. Scores of supporting mourners had to be killed as well. Having included this in the film could have been useful in attempting to relate how much of an ongoing conflict this was, unbeknown to Americans themselves.

Cortes, Carlos E. "Them and Us: Immigration as Social Barometer and Social Educator in American Film." Hollywood As Mirror: Changing Views of "Outsiders" and "Enemies" in American Movies. Ed. Robert Brent Toplin. Westport: Greenwood P, 199.

Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: Touchstone, 1996.