- La palabra en el bosque (The Word in The Woods) by Jeffrey L. Gould, Carlos Henríquez Consalvi
The term “liberation theology” refers to a diverse and at times contradictory set of beliefs and practices originating in Catholic social teaching as developed in Latin America following the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). Though the most profound influence of this movement has arguably been among the university educated and thus relatively affluent, liberation theology has been most notable for its “preferential option for the poor.” Other important elements include its ecumenical spirit, rapprochement with secular social reformism including some currents of Marxist thought, and influence beyond Catholicism, Christianity, and Latin America. Though considered to be in decline during the reigns of Popes John Paul II and Benedict I, the apparently favorable disposition of current Pope Frances towards liberation theology reveals a more complex realm of history, culture, and politics than frequently assumed by those unfamiliar with the internal dynamics of the Catholic Church. As is usually the case with complicated ideologies and related practices, determining what liberation theology actually meant and continues to mean is a task most constructively undertaken in reference to specific contexts.
This superb documentary film details the history of liberation theology in the department of Morazán, El Salvador, from the early 1970s through that country’s civil war, a conflict that cost an estimated 75,000 lives and ended with peace accords signed in 1992. The film is set in the present and intersperses discussions about the past among a generation born after the peace accords with archival film footage, oral interviews of participant-observers, and open-ended discussions about future possibilities. Those familiar with the history of El Salvador’s civil war will recognize many significant trends and moments. These include the contested elections of 1972 and 1977; increasing political violence through the late 1970s and 1980s; the transformation of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero from a theological conservative to an outspoken critic of human rights abuses and U.S. foreign policy prior to his assassination in 1980; the region-wide impact of Nicaragua’s 1979 Sandinista Revolution; and the increasing support for armed counter-revolution among the Carter and especially Reagan administrations in the United States. This film is most notable for its “bottom-up” social historical approach, which helps us recover the thoughts, hopes, dreams, and regrets of actual participants, most from non-elite social sectors. The focus on Morazán, one of the most conflicted and war-torn regions of the country, makes these recollections especially poignant. [End Page 739]
This is the second outstanding historical documentary by Gould and Henríquez Consalvi. Their first effort, 1932: Cicatriz de la memoria (Scars of Memory) (2002), provides a model for the visual recovery of a “silenced” history, as it painstakingly reconstructs El Salvador’s infamous peasant massacre of 1932. La palabra en el bosque turns the film-makers’ camera towards the more recent past. The film succeeds on its own terms, providing significant depth and nuance while constructing an unprecedented visual archive of the influence of liberation theology at the popular level in a time and place of social crisis and extreme political violence. It is an outstanding source and would be especially useful paired with John Lynch ‘s New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America (2012) and Phillip Berryman’s Stubborn Hope: Religion, Politics and Revolution in Central America (1994). These written works provide a deeper sense of historical depth and geographic diversity than that allowed by the film’s useful but also limiting focus on Morazán.
While the film is successful on its own terms, my hope is that it will stimulate more discussion of the intersections and tensions between various strands of Catholicism as well as those among diverse currents of Protestantism in El Salvador. In addition, more consideration of old-fashioned political dynamics like patron-client relationships and the pursuit of material benefit through the control of institutional space would enhance our understanding of the links...