Raul Julia plays the Archbishop Romero who begins in the film as a fairly simple bishop who is actually looked upon with some disdain by other radical priests, although not by his popular friend, Friar Rutilio Grande (Richard Jordan). Julia is good in these scenes as he establishes Romero's personal stance to the country's problems. Julia is good in the way he frankly allows Romero's behavior to be con-screwed as some sort of apathy, which is how the radicals priest view him as, as Julia plays Romero as a particularly quiet man who from a distance seems to have very little reaction to what is going on all around him in the country. Julia though does not suggest Romero to be callous in his manner, and not even as a man unsure of his place in the conflict. Julia instead effectively exudes a certain religious piety that technically is far more optimistic than the priests who deride him. Romero likely due to his unassuming personality soon finds himself promoted to archbishop. Julia does not show that Romero is at all changed by his suddenly important position, although it does force him to have to make a statement for the church.
Julia's very good in his first speech where Romero essentially states he will keep the same position that he has had before. Julia though brings the right sort of refined passion to his statements still, which although state that the church will stay in the middle under him, he does stress that the church will always seek justice above all. I like how Julia does not make this a compromised statement from Romero, but rather he brings the right earnestness to the sermon of a man who does believe what he is saying. Julia does not play Romero as a man whose lost and needs to be shown a different way, rather he shows that Romero has his way which he has complete faith in. During this early period Julia very importantly shows sides to Romero other than what the intention of the film require him to be. Julia just has some good slight moments where he shows actually an enthusiasm Romero has in taking over the new post. It does not come off as selfish or prideful, but rather Julia portrays as just a genuine reaction to his success. He has one particularly good scene where he sorta celebrates with Father Grande, and the two actors bring a nice warmth to the relationship.
That is particularly necessary because the film does not dwell on their relationship for long, but it ends up being an essential part of Romero's story. Eventually Father Grande's known activism for the common people gets him shot and killed by a government death squad. Julia is outstanding in portraying the devastation in Romero when he sees his old friend's corpse along with the few innocent children shot with him. In the moment Julia powerfully conveys the change in Romero. One of the better aspects of the film is that Romero does not suddenly become like Grande, even with his death, but what the film shows along with Julia performance is a far more gradual transformation of the man. Julia does not switch on to Romero being suddenly adamant against the government, but what he does show is a change in how Romero conducts himself. Julia keeps the certain elegant devotion in Romero but there is something more energetic, active and most of all outgoing about it all. There is a greater purpose Julia suggests in a determination not to just pray for justice, although he will continue to do that, but to take action to stop the violence in his country.
What I think is most remarkable about Julia's performance here is that Julia does not play Romero as a great man so to speak, he's not larger than life and he in no way carries himself as such. Julia presents him as a man in this situation, although a man driven by his faith and belief in good for all mankind. In this way Julia does bring some very human exasperation in Romero's efforts as he attempts to actually mediate between the radical priests, who begin to take some violent actions themselves, as he is repulsed by this idea no matter the circumstance. It's not some divine person here, but a man who is doing what he can to do what is best. Even Romero's actions though begin to face more sever persecution even when they are merely performing his normal duties. There's a strong moment for Julia when Romero states his intentions to perform mass, even though violent troops have taken over the local church. After the men desecrate the holy material in the church, Romero goes and collects them. What I love what Julia does is he creates the very real fear in Romero as he takes this action, making his perseverance to do so all the more poignant.
Now I think a point of contention for this performance though could come in the scenes where Romero is pushed to the edge by the sheer cruelty of the people he has been attempting to reason with. Julia is very intense in these scenes, and frankly yells quite loudly. I actually think it works for the character he has created thus far. His Romero is a man possessed to this sort of behavior, that just acting out in anger at all, that Julia makes it as though Romero has to force it out in this way since it is so opposed to his very nature. As everything becomes worse though Romero is not only reduced to rage to fight this hatred. In fact Romero in a way is raised up through his good works, as the people support him all the more, and Julia is excellent in bringing just a bit of hope in these moments as Romero embraces their love while returning it. In the end Romero, due to the overwhelming brutality of the government, is forced from mediation to direct confrontation through a final speech, which he states his condemnations of their horrible actions. Julia delivery is wonderful as he brings out the power of the speech, as he portrays the searing disgust for the evil perpetuated by these men. Julia's work here is remarkable as he elevates his thin material to create a moving portrait of a martyr.