"Romero" Viewing Guide

"Big picture" questions for pondering, and discussing after the film ends:

1. How does Oscar Romero (Raul Julia) change from the beginning of the film to its end? How would you describe his transformation in terms of the order of salvation?

2. What role do the sacraments (particularly baptism and communion) play in the life of the Church? How would this story be different if El Salvador were Protestant? Would stronger sacramental practice help evangelical churches do the work of Christ in the world? Or is the converse the case?

3. What are the different visions in the film (aristocratic, guerrilla, etc.) for where the Church should be in contexts of cycles of violence and vengeance? How does Romero's vision change in the course of the film? Evaluate these visions according to the doctrine of the Church you're learning. Does the Gospel demand that Christians be pacifists?

4. What relationships between Church and world are portrayed throughout this movie? Evaluate them. How can the Church have a social agenda without it turning into simply the agenda of political liberals or conservatives?

5. In Brave Heart, the death of William Wallace (Mel Gibson) rallies the Scots to gain a measure of independence from the tyrannical English. His death brings about the required Hollywood ending. There is no Hollywood ending in Romero. Is there a happy ending? How do Christian stories like these compare and contrast with the world's stories?

6. What should the Church be in El Salvador? What should the Church be in your town?


My comments "during" the film, counting from the beginning of the videotape:

3:00 — The movie opens on election day in El Salvador.

5:00 — What is Fr. Grande's vision of the relationship between Christ and the Church? How does it agree and/or disagree with what you have been learning in class?

6:30 — The officer interfering with the election is Lieutenant Columa. He will re-appear throughout the film.

8:00 — Oscar Romero tries to stay in the jeep as his fellow priests try to get Salvadorans to the polls. Here, at the beginning of the film, he symbolizes the Church as an "apolitical" institution, not getting involved in politics.

15:00 — The Salvadoran aristocracy turns out to see Romero made archbishop, and to celebrate with him. One of them is the newly elected president, backed by the aristocracy and the military. Are these gifts, or bribes?

16:00 — Note that Romero begins the reception with the aristocracy, but his real loyalties are with his fellow priests (outside with him as he tries on his new shoes).

17:00 — As Father Grande administers the Eucharist (Lord's Supper), a large red poster above him rejects the election results as fraudulent. This sign is prominent twice in the scene, on purpose: He is with the people who have rejected the new government.

20:00 — Note the symbolism: After the massacre in the plaza, a switch back to violinists at the archbishop's reception. The priest's prophecy has already been fulfilled; Romero is fiddling while El Salvador burns. Here Romero meets Lt. Columa, and is uneasy to be congratulated by him. Is his "apolitical" vision for the Church really apolitical? Can the Church finally be outside politics and still be faithful to its calling as Church?

20:20 — At the party, Columa cuts a deal with an aide to the president-elect for corroboration between the government and the military. The government cannot enforce the peace alone; it must have the coercive power of the military.

23:00 — "To be with my people": Grande and Romero are effectively ministering in two churches, separated by class (and conveniently, also by geography), rather than one truly universal Church. But can there really be two churches of Jesus Christ?

26:00 — Note the contrast between the private baptisms the Salvadoran aristocrats have practiced with Church leaders, and the public baptisms that happen on Sundays in the Church.

32:00 — Romero's first transformation comes when he sees Fr. Grande's body alongside others'. Note the differences that follow.

34:30 — Romero has now rejected a vision of a "church" of aristocrats and a "church" of common people. His proposal of one mass in the cathedral, rather than several masses held separately, aims to overcome the divisions between rich and poor Salvadoran Christians. His speech at that mass will be a nice illustration of liberal theology like we have in many American churches. His words and actions will get more radical as the film progresses.

35:00 — Striking imagery here: While the bishops debate over whether to have a common mass, Romero enters a place where he encounters a common woman, and asks her advice. The status of Jesus and Mary stored in this room for holidays indicate that here with the poor, rather than in the bishops' conference, is where God is.

36:00 — The woman's agenda is utterly different from his. She's not preoccupied with where to hold a liturgy; she is wondering whether there is hope either in this life or in the next. Romero's new vision, while an improvement, is still out of touch.

38:40 — "He has disappeared": What follows is a wall of pictures of "the disappeared" — los desaparecidos — the "political prisoners" referred to later in the film. These are people suspected of being communists or sympathesizers, who have been kidnapped and no longer heard from. If you look closely you can see the word "DESAPARECIDO" on each picture. Note that this wall is in the church. Los desaparecidos are still within the communion of saints. God sees them!

39:30 — Minister Selada is said to believe in "agrarian reform," or "land reform." This is the redistribution of farm land, almost all of which is owned by El Salvador's tiny aristocracy. Effectively, it would confiscate land from the rich and give it to the poor. This is more Robin Hood (or the "jubilee year" of Lev. 25) than socialism. Understandably, El Salvador is totally polarized and radicalized over the prospect.

47:00 — In case you can't read it, the president elect's note reads simply: "There are no political prisoners."

49:00 — Here and later you will see the right-wing aristocracy, then the left-wing guerrillas, pressuring Romero to take its side in the cycle of violence that is accelerating. In my opinion, each side has pretty good arguments. But Romero doesn't accept either one. When he resists, both times he is accused of being "otherworldly," spiritualist, and unrealistic, and thus complicit in the other side's violence. Is he?

57:00 — "We'll take care of" the political implications of the Gospel, says the president elect. Can the Church surrender the political implications of the Gospel to the state?

59:00 — The "military vicar" speaking at the bishop's conference is basically the chaplain-in-chief of the armed forces. He's the one who hoped to "get another medal" during Romero's term as archbishop. Are his interests the Church's interests? Can chaplains really do their jobs while being faithful to the Church?

1:00:00 — Stop the film after the line, "Rome is going to be very unhappy." We'll pick the film up here next time. Think about the "big picture" questions between now and then.


1:02:00 — Romero wants to "take care of the eucharist" that is trapped in the occupied church. Here's some background: After Mass, consecrated hosts that are left over are kept on the altar, as objects of veneration (respect). They are known as the "reserved sacrament." According to Catholic sacramental theology, they are the body of Christ. Thus when the soldier shoots at the altar, its hosts, and the image of Jesus, he is literally shooting at Christ.

1:05:00 — In my opinion, this is the story's low point. As Romero retreats in his car, has he retreated to his academic, sacramental otherworld, taking Christ's body away from the people and leaving them churchless? Does Christianity have nothing to offer oppressed Christians? Is the Church at the mercy of the state, working only where Caesar allows it?

1:05:30 — The car returns! Julia may as well be droning "I'll be back" in an Austrian accent. Romero is a different disciple of Jesus Christ than he was when he drove away. This is the movie's turning point.

1:07:30 — How, according to Romero's speech and his actions, does the liberationist Church continue the work of Christ?

1:09:00 — How does Romero's cancellation of private baptisms change the practice of baptism? How does the symbol change when transferred from a private context to a public one? Which is more true to the Gospel?

1:10:00 — "You have deserted us," the woman says to Romero. He no longer respects the separate worship lives of upper-caste Catholics and lower-caste Catholics. But how has Jesus overcome the things that she sees separating "you" (Romero), "us" (aristocracy), and "them" (Indians)? How does the Church embody and further that overcoming work in El Salvador? In America?

1:29:00 — The cycle of violence has claimed aristocratic Catholics (who withdraw their support for Romero), Catholics in the military (for instance, the one who, for a time, protects Romero and still goes to Church), and common people (who have become Marxist guerrillas). Now it claims this priest as well. Will it now claim Romero too? Will it turn him back into an apolitical bookworm, or into a guerrilla? What resemblances do you see between the temptations facing Romero and the messianic temptations facing Jesus during his messianic career? Has the Church succumbed to the temptations that Jesus triumphed over?

1:32:00 — Here Romero's struggle is paralleled with Jesus' in the Garden of Gethsemane. His inner conflict is captured in his pronouns: "I can't! You must!"

1:34:00 — The woman confronts Romero: "You speak for us!" Romero is not only a bishop who represents God to the people; the bishop himself represents the people. As bishop, what he speaks is worship, specifically the liturgy of the Mass. How does worship do the work of Christ in the world? How does Romero's role reflect the Catholic doctrine of the Church we have reviewed in class?

1:35:00 — The scene shifts to a room full of flags of other nations that hang over a group of aristocrats. Note the complete absence of Christian imagery as Lt. Columa too speaks of the group as "we." We Christians? We Salvadorans? We wannabe players on the international stage? (The flags may symbolize the global "capitalist" order they belong to, though Romero's description of their order as "feudal" is more accurate.) What does the Church's "we" mean for the other "we's" in this film?

1:38:00 — Now Romero orders the aristocracy to "stop the repression." What authority does he have to do that? Is it biblical for the Church to order Christians in government to act a certain way? Is it legal in America? Is it socially acceptable?

1:40:00 — Romero is killed as he lifts the cup at the Eucharist. What's the imagery? Who has he become?

Postscript: Raul Julia's faith was transformed in the making of this film. A lapsed Catholic, he became an active Catholic again. (Julia died in 1994 of a stroke, aged 54.) How has viewing the film affected your faith?

Other Links

Here are the notes for the lecture on liberation theology I would have delivered, which you will find helpful in interpreting the film. They're not required reading, but you'll find them very helpful for understanding the movie.

Here is a viewing guide on the movie for a class at a Catholic high school, posted so that we can "borrow" it. I'd like you to pay particular attention to the background on the movie, which is the second half of the document.

Here is a homily for Archbishop Romero from probably the foremost liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, delivered on the fifteenth anniversary of his death.

Attendance: