When we first meet Oscar Romero in the fact-based 1989 film "Romero," he is a bookish, timid priest seemingly unconcerned with the growing sociopolitical troubles gripping his country of El Salvador. Indeed, Romero is appointed archbishop largely because he is a passive figure unlikely to make political waves.

But as the film (which takes place in the late '70s and early '80s) progresses, the once unassertive monsignor becomes an increasingly outspoken critic of the violence and government oppression plaguing the small Central American country. Thanks to actor Raul Julia, the awakening of Romero's social conscience is both realistically subtle and deeply moving. Julia deftly conveys the internal and external emotions of a holy man desperately trying to make sense of the madness around him.

At times the actor reacts to the injustices around him with impassioned anger. But mostly he conveys a spirit of thoughtful though intense introspection as his idealistic character begins the difficult process of reshaping his role as a spiritual and moral leader.

Romero's lofty goal is to help achieve social justice without violent confrontation. He feels great sympathy for the poor who live in squalid conditions under the dictatorial and sometimes brutish military regime. Yet he cannot reconcile the armed rebellion by leftist guerrillas with his own pacifist beliefs.

Romero refuses to view himself as a political activist. He tries vainly to serve as a mediator between the guerrillas and the government. Still, the gentle archbishop is labeled a communist sympathizer by authorities when he decries the extrajudicial killings of priests and peasants who favor political reform.

In one of the film's most inspiring sequences, Romero attempts to reclaim a church that has been commandeered by the national guard. Initially, the courageous archbishop is threatened by gunfire and ejected from the premises by a surly American soldier. But soon after, Romero returns with a mass of believers in tow. It's a spine-tingling moment when the throng of worshipers marches peacefully past a group of helpless soldiers and into the church.

"Romero" also succeeds in bringing a human face to a combustive political situation that for years made worldwide headlines. The film presents both the grinding poverty of the masses and the privileged lives of the elite. While viewing this film it's not hard to understand why the common people want political and social change and why the ruling class is so insistent on retaining its monopoly on power.

"Romero" (1989), directed by John Duigan. 105 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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