There’s no shortage of Oscar nominations for Romero films

Aubrey Malone takes a look at the portrayal of Archbishop Romero on the big screen

Though Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986) essentially concerns itself with the story of a foreign correspondent called Richard Boyle (played by James Woods), its most dramatic moments come in the dying stages when ‘apostle of peace’ Oscar Romero is brutally murdered as he says Mass in El Salvador’s Metropolitan Cathedral on the evening of March 24, 1980.

Stone is factually incorrect on this score as the assassination actually took place in the Chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence, situated a mere stone’s throw from the archbishop’s house, but just this once we can forgive him his ‘poetic licence’.

A more comprehensive treatment of the soon-to-be-beatified archbishop’s life is to be found in John Duigan’s Romero: A True Story (1989).

Fought injustice

At the time this was made, the eccentric Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo was considering a film to be provisionally called Death of an Archbishop but he abandoned the project when Duigan’s film came on-stream.

It has the Puerto Rican star Raul Julia in the title role and evocatively captures the heart and soul of the man who fought injustice tirelessly throughout his all-too-brief life, and who once said – presciently, “If they kill me I will be reborn among my people”.

Julia would also die young – he was the victim of a stroke in 1990 at the age of 54 – but this film is a testament to his cerebral power as an actor. It deals with the archbishop’s gallant efforts to awaken his congregation to the horrors unfolding around them in El Salvador with his unique brand of liberation theology, advocating direct action against oppression as right-wing military forces run rampant around him.

To prepare for the role, Julia read the archbishop’s autobiography. He found this to be inspirational enough to entice him to re-join the Catholic Church, from which he’d become alienated. The government of El Salvador refused to allow distribution of the film in its own country so it wasn’t seen by as many people as it should have been.

After Julia died he was championed by the government for his social activism. His mother had brought homeless people into her house when he was growing up, her work eventually resulting in a citation from the Catholic University of Ponce. Raul inherited her social conscience.

Romero: A True Story is the best-known of the films about the archbishop but equally impressive is the documentaryMonseñor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero. This was co-directed by Ana Corrigan and Juliet Weber in 2009 and produced by the Kellogg Institute at the University of Notre Dame. It’s a Spanish production with English subtitles.

It begins with his appointment in 1977, an event shortly followed by the shooting dead of his friend Fr Rutilio Grande, a radical Jesuit who’d been trying to house landless peasants at the time. The archbishop said as he looked at the corpse, “If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path”.

Fr Rutilio had been branded a communist. The archbishop knew he wasn’t one.

His death radicalised him and led to suggestions that he himself was a communist too. “The left accuse me of being on the right,” he said, “and the right accuse me of being on the left.” He was neither to the right or left, he stressed; his loyalty was simply to “the Word of God”.

The Last Journey shows him walking through the streets talking and listening to his flock and also denouncing the atrocities from his pulpit, his mild demeanour in marked contrast to the gravitas of his pronouncements. His homilies were broadcast all over the country, causing one woman to say, “it was like the heavens opened and we were inspired to welcome it here on Earth”.

The film also shows us the modest house in which he lived – it’s now a museum – and has rare archival footage of people whose lives were changed by his message, including Church activists and human rights lawyers working in El Salvador. Even more interestingly, we hear his own voice reading his diaries. He wrote regularly in these, recording the events of the day just gone.

His fate was sealed the night he called upon Salvadorean soldiers to “obey God’s higher order and stop carrying out the government’s oppression”. There’s footage of that epochal injunction. It leads inexorably to his assassination the following night when a thin, bearded man steps out of a red Volkswagen and shoots him dead with a single bullet to the heart.

Who was it? Nobody yet knows for sure. As he lies dying, a group of nuns gather around him like, as one writer put it, “the points of a star, or the figures at the feet of Christ in Renaissance murals”.

The film culminates in his funeral a few days later. It attracts thousands of mourners. In the course of it, the soldiers who are watching it open fire on them.

They also throw bombs, killing almost 50 people. It would be many years before the peace the archbishop died for would return to this troubled region – and then only tentatively.   

You might also be interested in a 30-minute documentary called The Murder of Monseñor, which you can watch on your computer on YouTube.

An independent film made by Daniel Freed, this tells us that the US judicial system believes that a man called Alvaro Saravia, a car salesman from Modesto, California, organised the archbishop’s assassination upon the orders of Robert d’Aubisson, a major in Salvadorean intelligence, for 1,000 Salvadorean colons (a variation, one might say, on the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot two millennia before).

D’Aubisson died of cancer some years ago. Saravia disappeared.

He may be alive or dead; nobody knows. But he’s still technically ‘on the run’ for complicity in the murder as far as the legal system is concerned.

Tortured and killed

The martyred archbishop features in passing in two TV movies, Roses in December (1982) andChoices of the Heart (1983), both dealing with four Church charity workers who were tortured and killed by the El Salvador government in 1980 while providing food and shelter for the poor. 

Don’t confuse Choices of the Heart with another film of the same name with Dana Delany and Rod Steiger. This one stars Melissa Gilbert as Jean Donovan, a lay missionary who becomes a follower of Archbishop Romero (played by Rene Enriquez) before being killed.

The archbishop also appears in cameo roles in two biopics about Pope John Paul II: Have no Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II (2005) and the Italian film Karol: The Pope, The Man (2006). In these, he’s played by Joaquim de Almeida and Carlos Kaniowsky respectively.

All of these films are available to order online through and/or