Oscar Romero was made Archbishop of El Salvador because the powers that be deemed him a cautious nebbish who wouldn’t rock the boat. But when his friend, Father Grande, was murdered in 1977 for espousing liberation theology, the scales fell from Romero’s eyes. He denounced the military regime until, in 1980, he too was shot — one of 70,000 victims of the civil war.

Romero is the first theatrical release of Paulist Productions, run by an order of the Catholic priesthood. It is stiffly written by people who know more about good works than they do about good drama. They simply can’t tell a story: The characters are cardboard cutouts in a crudely constructed morality play.

Every American should know about Oscar Romero’s martyrdom, and this movie is a more strictly factual account of the war than Oliver Stone’s aesthetically superior Salvador. But thanks to Raul Julia’s intense, understated performance and the gut-wrenching nature of the atrocities Romero saw, the movie has its gripping moments. Unfortunately, they are too few. Despite its moral excellence, Romero fails utterly to bring the activist archbishop to life. C

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