“The Art of Political Murder” – Well crafted [MOVIE REVIEW]

Protestors march against the assassination of Bishop Gerardi. Photo courtesy of HBO

“The Art of Political Murder,” directed by Paul Taylor, based on Francisco Goldman’s book of the same name, is filmmaking in its highest form. This documentary will leave you breathless from the breadth and depth of its storytelling. It is not an exaggeration to say that it is life-changing, revealing unheard of cruelty as well as unbelievable bravery.

Guatemala endured a civil war from 1960 until 1996 led by its right wing military dictatorship against various leftist rebel groups supported by Mayan and Ladino peasants. Most of the military aggression was centered on the indigenous people and over 200,000 were killed or “disappeared.” Worth noting, although not mentioned in the film, the fervent anti-communism of the military government was supported financially by the United States throughout the war. It was a U.S. backed coup in 1954 that overthrew the democratically elected government, installing the first of an endless string of military dictators. One of the root causes of the civil war, the inequitable distribution of land, was a direct result of the land grab by the United Fruit Company, the American company that brought you Chiquita bananas.

Throughout this time, the moral and spiritual guide of the people was Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi who spent years compiling a report on the human rights abuses committed by government forces during the war. A group of idealistic younger associates contributed to the leg work and investigation needed to support the premise that large scale human rights violations had occurred during the civil war. Gerardi had long been a target of the military because of his influence over the peasantry through his spiritual guidance.

Bishop Gerardi presented his treatise on April 24, 1998 laying bare the human rights offences and genocides committed by the government as well as a pathway for reconciliation and healing. On April 26, 1998, Gerardi was murdered in the courtyard of his church. “The Art of Political Murder” is the story of the fight for justice in his name and the search for his killers.

This investigation, made exceptionally difficult by the criminal ineptitude of the investigating police and various government agencies whose primary goal was seemingly to cover up any meaningful clues, was led by Otto Ardón the first special prosecutor assigned to the case by the Ministry of Justice. That he had close ties to the military would lend credence to a governmental coverup and it was during his watch that leaks to the press were common and various theories began to take hold. Significantly, the media began to portray this as a crime of homosexual passion and jealousy, insinuating that Bishop Gerardi was murdered by a lover of Father Mario Orantes, Bishop Gerardi’s assistant priest at San Sebastián church. Then, when Ardón used pictures from the autopsy to propose that the Bishop had been mauled to death by Orantes’ German Shephard, resulting in the arrest of the dog (seriously), the press had a field day. A second autopsy was demanded; the German Shephard was exonerated; Ardón resigned.

 Ronalth Ochaeta, co-founder of the Office of Human Rights of the Archdiocese. Photo Credit: Tom Turley / Courtesy of HBO 

Throughout the government’s examination, Gerardi’s supporters and co-founders of the Office of Human Rights of the Archdiocese (ODHA) shadowed the inquiry, conducting a parallel investigation. These exceptionally brave workers risked their lives to make sure the truth was told and many, faced with credible death threats and attempts on their lives were forced into exile in Costa Rica.

Taylor has put together an impressive lineup of present day interviews and remembrances juxtaposed against footage from the time in question. The lighting, closeups, and dialogue bring you into the frame. Recounted as dispassionately as possible, this is a murder mystery/thriller whose ending is always in doubt. The stakes are incredibly high. The tension you feel throughout the film is palpable. One of the villains will surprise you; one of the heroes will too.

Certainly there are never real spoilers when the outcome can be found on the internet, but this isn’t even about the end result. This is a film about what happened and how it happened.  Will there be continued loss of life? Who fought the battles and how? The dangers are real and the survivors are still shaken. The tactics used by the accused are truly frightening and it is a tribute to how Taylor has filmed this that the viewer feels every threat personally.

There is evil beyond what you think is possible in real life and bravery and altruism that defies the imagination. It is a tribute to the interviewees that you can feel their continuing pain. From his supporters and followers, as well as the actions of his enemies, a three dimensional portrait of Bishop Gerardi is revealed. The world truly lost an amazing leader, both spiritually and intellectually, with his martyrdom. But his legacy lived on through the bravery of his followers, all of which is revealed in “The Art of Political Murder.”

Rather than document who each player in this living breathing drama is, you need to sit down and watch the story roll out and then watch it again, which I did. That there can be such bravery in the face of evil and out-sized opposition gives hope in a time of darkness.

 Francisco Goldman. Photo Credit: Tom Turley / Courtesy of HBO 

Francesco Goldman, the Guatemalan-American writer of “The Art of Political Murder” spent eighteen years researching the murder of Bishop Gerardi. We are lucky to have him as one of the interview subjects as he helps guide us through the investigation. The men and women who conducted the shadow investigation, eventually joining with the government prosecutor are examples of what we should all aspire to.

HBO has produced many fine documentaries in the past. “The Art of Political Murder” is one of their best, if not the best they have sponsored. Watch it. It may change your life if only in imagining what can be done even under impossible circumstances.

Launching December 16 on HBO and HBO MAX.




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Written by: Neely Swanson

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