WASHINGTON, D.C. — A handsome new DVD restoration of “Romero,” the 1989 drama about martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, is a reminder of the original glory days of Paulist Productions and its founder, Father Ellwood “Bud” Kieser.
Starring Raul Julia as the prelate, who was assassinated while celebrating Mass March 24, 1980, the film was shot on location in Mexico (El Salvador was still too hazardous) for $3.2 million and had a limited release — just 400 screens — but still managed a profit, largely on the strength of brisk videocassette sales. It even had one 1991 airing on CBS.
“It’s a movie that really holds up,” said Paulist Father Tom Gibbons, director of development and production at Paulist Productions.
“It relates to immigration today and how we relate to the poor with the income divide playing a role. I think it still packs quite a big punch,” he said at an Oct. 24 evening screening of the remastered movie in Washington. Ten days earlier, the archbishop became St. Romero, canonized by Pope Francis at the Vatican.
The screening was hosted by Paulist Productions and Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and development agency.
The film’s “portrait of a good but unpolitical person transformed by the moral imperatives of his times is a challenge to everyone’s commitment to social justice,” Catholic News Service reviewer Henry Herx wrote in 1989.
When he was appointed archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, Romero was initially believed to be apolitical. But he soon became a vocal critic of El Salvador’s repressive right-wing government and ultimately paid for his outspokenness with his life.
Herx also said Julia gave “a brilliant performance.” “He invests the role with an intense spiritual dimension that makes credible Archbishop Romero’s determined defiance of a ruthless regime,” he wrote. “But Julia also creates an unusually rich human dimension to the character, showing his simple joy in people and deep concern for their welfare.”
The principal criticism of the film over the years is that it gives only a passing mention to U.S. involvement in providing arms during the Salvadoran civil war that began in 1980 and wasn’t considered over until 1992, after more than 75,000 were killed.
Research began just two days after the archbishop’s murder, when John Sacret Young, the eventual screenwriter, sent news clippings to Kieser.
At the time, Kieser was best known for his half-hour syndicated TV drama “Insight,” a staple of early Sunday-morning programming from 1960 to 1983 when stations were required to set aside free airtime as a public service, and for which Kieser, who was well connected in the film industry, employed top Hollywood talents.
He tried at first to get “Romero” made as a TV movie, but all the networks turned him down, since the film would not have a romantic interest.
Before John Duigan was signed to direct, Kieser had reached an oral understanding with Hollywood legend John Huston, who died a few weeks later. Kieser, who was an imposing 6-foot-7 and renowned for his confidence, also met with Martin Scorsese at one point.
Julia, who died in 1994, “had a sort of grandeur,” recalled Sacret Young. Although much taller than the 5-foot-9 Romero, the actor instead “took on Romero’s personality. He brought the meekness into this man for all seasons.”
Kieser, who died in 2000, also created the Humanitas Prizes, given to creators of film and TV whose work promotes “human dignity, meaning, freedom and compassion.” This past year’s winners included the screenplays of “The Post,” “Mudbound” and “Lady Bird.”
The $10,000 cash prizes are typically donated by their recipients to various charities, fulfilling, Sacred Young said, “a legend about Father Bud: When he handed you a check, he never let go of it.”
Sacret Young, who later created the Vietnam-set TV series “China Beach,” thinks a single film drama about someone like St. Romero couldn’t get made today. “Today, I’d do it as a miniseries, that might be able to show the larger context of Latin America,” he told CNS.
The business model for religious-themed films also has changed over the decades. Paulist Productions’ latest film, the documentary “The Dating Project,” required a partnership with PureFlix Entertainment and Family Theater, which held special showings to invited groups in theaters before the DVD release.
The “Romero” restoration, released on DVD and streaming platforms Oct. 9, has coincided with the pursuit of justice along with the canonization. On Oct. 15, a Salvadoran judge ordered the arrest of a former military officer suspected of ordering Romero’s murder. Alvaro Rafael Saravia, now 78, has been considered a suspect for years.