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Film on Killing of Prelate Portrays Terror Behind Salvador Refugee Exodus

September 14, 1989|RAFAEL PRIETO ZARTHA | Prieto Zartha is a Los Angeles-based free-lance journalist

"In God's name . . . I beg you, I beseech you, I order you: Stop the repression."

Those words, and a crack shot through the heart, climax "Romero," a film about the life of Msgr. Oscar Arnulfo Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated as he celebrated Mass on March 24, 1980.

Romero's statement, directed at his country's military, sealed the death sentence for the prelate, whose tenure as archbishop is brought to life in this Paulist Brothers' production.

Romero's character is portrayed by Raul Julia, a Puerto Rican actor whose performance depicts the archbishop's transformation from a reserved and passive man of the cloth, with close ties to some of El Salvador's wealthiest families, into an outspoken defender of the persecuted.

In the months preceding his death, as documented in the film, Romero criticized the violent acts of the Salvadoran left and right and brought upon himself the enmity of the military, the rich and the powerful.

Filmed in Mexico with a cast composed almost entirely of Latino actors, Ana Alicia and Eddie Velez among them, the film recreates a period of tension between the Catholic Church on the one side and the Salvadoran government and military on the other. The action takes place in the late 1970s and early '80s, a time in which government-supported violence escalated to include several Catholic priests among its victims.

The film depicts the alliance between the ruling class and the army, as well as the attitude of some church officials more directly committed to those holding power than to the rest of their parishioners. It also shows the violent activities of the right-wing death squads and the church's concern for the " desaparecidos " (the missing ones).

Some scenes recall the brutality of Latin American military personnel previously brought to the big screen in films such as "Missing."

The on-screen action brings to light one of the most important reasons for the exodus of Salvadorans to the United States: the 60,000 killed in political violence. The exodus has brought an estimated 400,000 Salvadorans to Southern California, nearly 150,000 to San Francisco and has given a Spanish touch to Washington brought by 100,000 Salvadorans.

Francisco Rivera, one of the thousands of refugees, said the film struck him with "visceral impact."

"It hit me hard . . . it took me back to the past," said Rivera, a member of the literary group "La Cebolla Purpura" (The Purple Onion) at the time of the clergyman's assassination.

"The day of Romero's death I was having dinner in a small restaurant in San Salvador. . . . I heard the news on the radio. The city went dark . . . there was a tense calm. That night I thought, 'If they've killed him, what could happen to the rest of the people?' . . . A month later I left El Salvador."

Here in Los Angeles, Rivera helped found the Msgr. Oscar Arnulfo Romero Clinic, offering aid to Central American refugees. Rivera now works at the USC Civic and Community Services Office.

"This film will make all of us Salvadorans remember," said Rivera, recalling that Romero's example was one of the inspirations for establishment of the U.S. sanctuary movement to harbor Central American refugees.

The film has not been dubbed into Spanish; it is being shown in English with Spanish subtitles.

According to T. C. Rice, marketing vice president for Four Seasons, the film's distributor, the movie was not dubbed because of the cost involved and the fact that it was not intended for release to Spanish-language theaters. He called those cinemas "ruined theaters where exploitation Spanish-language movies are being presented."

Said Dennis McCann, an executive of the Carranza Group, the firm that advises Four Seasons on matters concerning the Latino market: "To go to these theaters (would be) diminishing the image of the quality of the film."

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