A Comparison between Two Global Films: El Salvador and Romero (A Look at War, Politics and Religion from the Global Cinema’s Viewpoint)*

         “You are not defending! You are attacking!” The quotation taken from Raul Julia’s character, Archbishop Oscar Romero in the film Romero will give viewers chills down their spine if they are not careful. Raul Julia is at his finest hour in this performance of a devoted archbishop who is trying to help bring peace to El Salvador.

         The assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, which occurred in 1980, stirred up the usual international reaction of protest, which, is to say, was mostly ignored and easily forgotten by many people. Such atrocities have become normal in several of the nations of Central and South America. Although, it is reassuring to dismiss them as the anarchic behavior of evil and bloodthirsty Latinos, there is also the hint of the unholy hand of the CIA lurking around in the shadows. America, land of the free, sometimes has the bad habit of choosing the wrong side in Latin America.

         Romero was shot to death while celebrating mass. At the time, he was not only a spiritual leader for El Salvador’s Catholics, but he was also one of the most outspoken critics of the government. This government was portrayed in Romero as more or less a holding company for the financial exploiters of the country. But Romero was not always a critic and the film shadows his career from the day when he is selected as archbishop because of his “safe” and “moderate” character.

         In Romero, Romero is depicted as a man slow to anger and one who has tried to see both sides of the story. The radicalization of Romero is shown in terms of his responses to a number of personal run-ins. He has attempted to give the government the benefit of the doubt but has been deceived. He has witnessed the evidence of murder and repression and cannot bare it any longer. His conscience soon forces him to speak out against a government that denies human freedoms to it countrymen.

         This is a Romero who looks to be a safe choice for El Salvador. His conversion in to a critic of the government is seen almost in theological, but not political terms; he stands his ground not because he is a leftist but because he is a Godly man.

         Romero was produced by an agency of the Paulist Fathers, a Roman Catholic order of teachers and communicators. Although, it is not an official church production, it was partly financed by Catholics, which is maybe why the film portrays Romero as more of a religious and not a political man.

         There is not much doubt what the film, Romero believes in: free elections, the right to form labor unions, land reform, free speech and freedom from unreasonable search, seizure and murder. Romero was a good man. He did what he heart told him to do and he died for his morals. Director John Duigan’s only weakness in the film was a simple predictability. The viewer can sense at every moment what will occur next? The overall trajectory of the film is almost ordained from the start. In the end, the story seems a little more saddening than it does angry.

         In a speech given by the archbishop, Romero cries, “I’d like to make an appeal in a special way to the men in the army. Brothers, each one of you is one of us. We are the same people. The farmers and peasants that you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear the words of a man telling you to kill, think instead in the words of God, “Thou shalt not kill!” No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the Law of God. In His name and in the name of the tormented people who have suffered so much, and whose laments cry out to heaven: I implore you! I beg you! I order you!” This monologue defines Romero as a moving film and shows Julia’s true talent as an actor.

         Salvador, made in 1986, is of the same story as Romero, but is told in the eyes of a journalist who drives to El Salvador with his spaced-out, disc jockey, played by James Belushi, to try and catch a few good shots of the events of the 1980 military dictatorship. The journalist, Richard Boyle, played by James Wood, has hit rock bottom by drinking, drugging and living off his past glories.

         Given the headlines, you might think Salvador would be a controversial movie about the United States’ role in Central America. But actually, it is an old-school kind of film that tells a story of a hard-core journalist who takes a road-trip in search for fame and an overdose.

         The heart of the film is about the friendship of Woods and Belushi, but the story is about the real events seen through the eyes of the characters who have set themselves in another world called fantasy. This is what makes the movie so interesting. Once the two friends reach their destination, Woods starts to look up some of his contacts, who include a neo-fascist general, several bartenders and an old girlfriend. Several sorts of plots start to birth, along with the usual characters we expect in a story like this: American generals and embassy spokesmen and CIA types.

         The subplot involving the John Savage character, who is a great war photographer, is not a very successful one because trying to set Savage up as a dedicated photojournalist who risks his life to get the perfect picture does not really work. When he finally finds his personal turning point, it is only for a photo even the audience knows is not that great of a shot of an airplane swooping out of the sky. Without any context, it could be any plane flying out of any sky.

         Directed and co-written by Oliver Stone, Salvador tells the terrible story of El Salvador’s civil war through the eyes of a drugged-out journalist. Salvador is long and disjointed and attempts to tell a few too many stories. The scene where Woods debates policy with the U. S. Officials sounds a little tacked on, as if Stone was afraid of not making his point. But the emotion of the moving is truly fascinating. And the emotion is produced of Woods and Belushi, two losers who set sail in a world they never created, trying to play games by everyone else’s rules.

Derek Owen

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