ROMERO (1989)

Scene Analysis

Romero’s Struggle

[1]     In a country as large as the United States, it must be difficult for the media to choose which of the thousands of stories to tell.  Between local, state, and national coverage, hardly any time remains to tell any one story in any depth; many simply fall to the side and slip out of the forefront of our collective consciousness.  One such story was that of the revolutionary struggle in El Salvador.  While the struggle between the classes has waxed and waned over the last century, so has the U.S. government’s involvement.  Irrespective of the level of attention the government gave to El Salvador, the media chose to let the issue fall into the background of more popular issues.  The U.S. government’s aid to this third world nation would not spark the interest of the public enough to dedicate any type of serious attention until 1980 when Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated.

[2]     Nine years after Romero’s murder, Hollywood finally told the story of El Salvador’s struggle through its martyr’s rise and fall in Romero.  This movie takes the viewer through the conversion of priest Oscar Romero from a meek bookworm who would not get involved in politics to an outspoken champion of the people’s struggle against the corrupt military government.  Romero’s use of the church as a reason to stand up against the government of El Salvador represents the theology of liberation, which he championed in the eyes of the people of his country.  His transformation from a meek man who was afraid of stirring up conflict to a passionate leader of the revolution parallels the struggle within the church to find a unified position concerning the country’s political upheaval.  Within this struggle, those on the side of the people walked a line between moral righteousness and political isolation.  Liberation theology also threatened to draw a line between the classes in support of the church.  Romero deals with all of these issues through the experiences of its namesake.

[3]     The argument between Romero and Father Morantes humanizes each of these major issues in a very dramatic and tense way (1:29:00).  Furthermore, it shows the resolve of Romero to remain nonviolent despite conflicts within the church, especially between those who followed the theology of liberation.  To accomplish that purpose Raul Julia utilizes a powerful change of tone in his voice to show his resolve; the director places a gun in the hands of Morantes to add impact to the voicing of his views; and Morantes speaks first to show his defensiveness while Romero offers thought-out reactions which show he is wise and pensive.  These techniques help to establish this scene as a pivotal one in the transformation of Romero.

[4]     This confrontation between Archbishop Romero and his hard-won ally, Father Morantes, occurs after the government has murdered the second of the two priests they began the struggle with.  Romero comes to the office of an armed Morantes, who asks, “are you ready now to accept the way it really is?”  Throughout the movie, Morantes has not only sided with the people’s struggle but has personally participated in guerilla activities.  The gun he now holds in his hand shows the depth of his involvement in the anti-military efforts.  He explains here that he will not “abandon [his] people when [he is] one of those responsible for opening their eyes.”  This argument shows the resolve of many of the priests of El Salvador to take the side of the lower class whose human rights had been repeatedly violated by the death squads of the government.  Morantes feels, as many in his position did, that the only way to defend was to take up arms.  Romero, having stoically responded to the reasoning of Morantes for their entire conversation, finally explodes in response to Morantes’ argument, that what he does is in the interest of defending himself and his people.  Romero shouts out, “You’re not defending, you’re attacking.  And you lose God, just as they have.”

[5]     This outburst speaks of Romero’s view on a couple of levels.  The content of his words show his position against violence and the reason for it.  He feels that, in defending those who need help, the church must follow the word of God, which speaks against the use of lethal force.  Romero’s entire position relies on faith in the Bible, and he feels that to accomplish a righteous goal in an ungodly way is just as bad as committing the original wrong.  The tone with which Julia delivers these lines speaks to the strength of Romero’s conviction in maintaining this resolve.  Up until his explosion, Julia speaks his lines in a meek tone of voice resembling his manner earlier in the movie when he feared stirring up controversy.  His abrupt change of voice comes as a shock to the viewer as his conversion did to those in the church that expected him to “make no waves” (0:11:20).  This change in tone represents his change in ideals in the face of ideological conflict within the church.

[6]     Among the implications of the church’s position was the political issue of taking sides in the Salvadoran and global conflict between political parties.  The U.S. government chose to take the side of the government against which Romero stood because the people’s effort was associated with Marxism and communism.  For the church to take the side of the oppressed people could be seen as leaning toward the political left.  For Morantes to take up arms and fight with the guerrillas was an even bolder declaration of alliance with this U.S. government-condemned group.  Romero asks, “a guerilla, is that what you are?  A communist?”  The hazy line between siding with God and siding with the rebel ideology has been crossed in the eyes of Romero, which, to him, weakens his cause’s basis in Catholicism.  Throughout the movie, Romero has tried to root himself in the teachings of his religion and divorce his arguments from anything political.

[7]     For Romero, liberation theology is about taking care of all people regardless of political affiliation, but this has become increasingly difficult because of the sharp division of political affiliation along class lines.  With the wealthy landowners in support of the government that protected their land and the indigent masses in support of the warring guerillas, the church’s fight against human rights violations unavoidably takes both a political and class-specific side.   This scene also touches on this issue when Romero says to Morantes, “so you become like the military and the aristocracy.  You wage class warfare and become violent.”  Here Romero unequivocally unites the upper class with the military regime and takes a position against them.  This statement finalizes his struggle to weigh friendships with upper class members against his theological beliefs.

[8]     It is unlikely that this confrontation ever happened between the two men represented here in this manner, but it is the best representation that could be shown in the medium of a Hollywood film.  The audience should feel frustration for Romero because he has struggled so much with all of these issues to avoid violent confrontation.  They probably also feel some degree of sympathy for Morantes because his two closest allies have been murdered, and now he feels that he has “no other choice.”  The scene works well in the scheme of the movie because it deals with so many of the issues that have been affecting the plot since the start.  While the interest of time forces the ideas to come one on top of the next, a study of the dialogue shows the richness and depth of the struggle that the actors and director illustrate in dramatic fashion.  For this reason, this scene is a good one to focus on in a study of films that attempt to uncover forgotten segments of American history.

Copyright (c) 1999 by Nathan Henry Laver, Undergraduate at Lehigh University.

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