MOVIE REVIEW : 'Romero' Fails to Explore the Depths of Central American Tragedy

Times Staff Writer

"Romero," opening today at the Park Theatre in San Diego, has the good fortune to have Raul Julia in the title role as the martyred Salvadoran archbishop. But his solid portrayal, a work of simplicity and concentration, cannot redeem a film that in too many crucial ways goes wrong.

"Romero" is an especially poignant example of noble intention done in by misguided means, for Julia invests the archbishop with a spirituality that few heroes of conventional films with religious themes possess.

Much to his surprise, mild-mannered Msgr. Oscar Romero in 1977 is named archbishop of San Salvador. Some of his colleagues, who identify with the country's ultra-conservative ruling class, predict that he will not make waves despite the rapidly escalating oppression and brutality of the new Humberto regime. The mindless savagery unleashed by the military on the helpless and the innocent is too much for Romero to ignore. Drawing upon his faith as a devout man of God, he gradually emerges as an implacable leader of the opposition, having decided that God's law must transcend that of man.

Writer John Sacret Young and Australian director John Duigan, in his American film debut, sketch the outlines of Romero's fate and its implications for the relationship between church and state clearly enough, but with breadth rather than depth. Although the film does unfold with the requisite sense of tragic inevitability, thanks to Julia, nothing else about it rings true, even though what is depicted is depressingly credible, drawn as it is from recent, terrible (and ongoing) events.

The sad truth is that the film is trite in its dialogue as well as in its direction and is seriously marred by the disastrous miscasting of a key role. Underlying all these flaws is the pervading sense that the film, cursed with the synthetic quality that typically characterizes productions with international casts and crews, really has no business being in English in the first place.

This feeling is reinforced by the fact that the film doesn't deal with the role of the American government in El Salvador's plight, beyond a plea from Romero for us to stop sending arms that will be only used against his country's people. The role of the Vatican in El Salvador is soft-pedaled even more. Cultural imperialism, in the form of materialistic U.S. values and life styles, is noted only in passing. And the issue of extreme cruelty in Latin American political struggles is not addressed at all.

One has to wonder why its producer, Paulist priest Father Ellwood E. Kieser, didn't let us experience a Salvadoran film maker's vision of the country's seemingly unending tragedy. Surely the audience that is concerned enough with Central America to be attracted to Romero's story is sufficiently sophisticated to sit still for subtitles. Surely, too, the film would be more appealing to Latino audiences were it in Spanish.

Again excepting Julia, the actors are pedestrian or worse. As a fiery activist priest called Father Rutilio Grande, Richard Jordan looks about as Latino as Robert Redford; it's no help that his Spanish accent is so erratic. The dozens of native extras--the film was shot in Mexico--are terribly self-conscious and often seemingly perplexed. Clearly, Duigan, one of the least-known and most gifted of Australian directors, is out of his element. Such wonderful films as "Mouth to Mouth," "The Winter of Our Dreams" and "The Year My Voice Broke" show him to be a master of the intimate rather than the epic, and his usual rapport with actors fails him here, except with Julia.

Julia, who brings more to Romero than the script does, seems to draw strength and inspiration from the very solitary man he is portraying. "Romero" (rated PG-13 for violence and bloodshed) is of greatest interest as a study of a skilled professional actor going about his business no matter what. When you should be experiencing a sense of universality in the plight of Archbishop Romero, you may instead find yourself being impressed with Julia's ability to bring passion and meaning to cliches.


A Four Seasons Entertainment release of a Paulist Pictures production. Executive producers Lawrence Mortorff, John Sacret Young. Producer Father Ellwood E. Kieser, C.S.P. Supervising producer Mike Rhodes. Director John Duigan. Screenplay John Sacret Young. Camera Geoff Burton. Music Gabriel Yared. Production designer Roger Ford. Stunt coordinator Angel de la Pena. Film editor Frans Vandenburg. With Raul Julia, Richard Jordan, Ana Alicia, Eddie Velez, Tony Plana, Harold Gould, Lucy Reina, Al Ruscio, Tony Perez, Robert Viharo.

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13).

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