Imanol Uribe grapples with the injustice of the famous 1989 murders of Jesuits in El Salvador in this familiar morality tale

What Lucia Saw

Source: Málaga Film Festival

‘What Lucia Saw’

Dir: Imanol Uribe. Spain/Colombia. 2022. 107 mins

The best films of veteran Basque director Imanol Uribe are those which have engaged directly with politics, and while the well-intentioned but uneven What Lucia Saw lacks the urgency of say The Escape From Segovia or Running Out Of Time, it handles its complex historical subject matter – the headline-grabbing 1989 assassination of a group of Jesuit priests and two housekeepers in El Salvador - with insight and skill. Politically themed festivals and sidebars are the likeliest home for a film that makes no claims to be at the stylistic cutting edge: what you get instead are the solid virtues of craftsmanship and calm. 

Some will wonder how it is possible to extract so little tension from such a subject

The story line shuttles, not always elegantly, between Miami and El Salvador. Well-rendered early scenes ripple with tension as Lucía (Colombian actor Juana Acosta) and her husband, baker Jorge (Juan Carlos Martínez) are left without food, water or safety as the civil war between the government and the guerrilla forces rages in the background: the sound of gunfire is never far away.

Working as a cleaner at a local Jesuit-run university, Lucía seeks shelter there, and is welcomed in by Father Nachito (Ernesto Collado), the kind of cool priest who strums protest songs by night on his guitar. Indeed the priests seem to be good guys all round, none so more than Ellacuría (the dependable Karra Elejalde), who has just arrived on a visit. “If they kill me by day,” Ellacuría cheerfully explains, “we will know it was the guerillas, but if they arrive by night, it’ll be the army that’s killed me.” (The Spanish title translates as “They Came by Night”.)

The priests, liberation theologists who believe that the poor should be freed from their poverty, are aware that they are suspected by the military of being collaborators with the rebels. And so it is that, in the superbly staged central scenes which are witnessed by Lucía from her window, Ellacuría’s tragic prophecy comes true. She knows that the killers are the army: but the Americans want her to believe that it was the rebels who carried out the killing. 

Lucia and Jorge are whisked away to Miami - supposedly for protection, but actually for an interrogation, led by the magnificently unpleasant Colonel Lopez (Julio Pachón), the sort of fellow who, for example, has no compunction in suggesting to Jorge that the priests are having sex with his wife. Despite the pressure to change her story, Lucía remains firm. “I saw what I saw,” she insists per the English title. 

This is basically Luciá’s film – an all-too familiar morality tale about whether a little truth-telling David will be able to stand against a corrupt international Goliath. That is a lot of drama for a single character to carry, and though Costa gives it her best shot, she remains frustratingly one-dimensional, the busy plot making it hard for the script to zoom in on her emotions. The script does handle its sizeable cast of characters well: Carmelo Gómez, a fine actor who is seen too little on screen, as the university rector Tojeira, and Ben Temple as the whiskey-drinking, charming US Jesuit Father Tipton give particularly good value for money. But the lack of focus on the bigger picture is also frustrating, with Uribe untypically pulling his political punches when it comes to the involvement of the respective governments of El Salvador and the US.

The facts of the case are well-known - it is the injustice of them that clearly rankles Uribe. Daniel Cebrián’s script displays a refreshingly straightforward fidelity to the remarkable, tragic facts as they took place, which does mean a couple of dramatic opportunities are lost; some will wonder how it is possible to extract so little tension from such a subject. But What Lucía Saw does have an admirable seriousness of purpose, and while a few viewer yawns may be stifled through a couple of scenes of exposition in this dialogue-heavy film, or as Ellacuría tries to change a sceptical student’s mind in the lecture hall, it all adds context and food for thought. 

The ramifications of what Lucía saw are still playing out. Although most of the soldiers responsible for the killings are still free men, in 2021 one was condemned to 133 years in jail in Spain. Meanwhile, Lucía herself now lives in California, which has been her home since the night she witnessed the shootings.

Production Companies: Nunca Digas Nunca, Bowfinger International Pictures, Tornasol Media, 64a Films.

International sales: Latido Films 

Producers: María Luisa Gutiérrez, Gerardo Herrero

Screenplay: Daniel Cebrián 

Production design: Diego López

Editing: Teresa Font

Cinematography: Kalo Berridi

Music: Vanessa Garde

Main cast: Juana Acosta, Juan Carlos Martínez, Karra Elejalde, Carmelo Gómez, Ben Temple, Ernesto Collado, Julio Pachón