Witnessing to the Truth about the UCA Martyrs

by | Apr 15, 2022 | Film, Justice, The Jesuits

“But man does not drive to be free for himself and content with himself.”1

According to Jürgen Multmann in The Crucified God, Psalm 18, verse 36 is not often understood. He says it should read,“You show me that you are great by your humiliation of yourself” because, according to Multmann, “God dwells in heaven and among those who are of a humble and contrite spirit.”2

That is the first of many Multmann quotes that seem to overlay with the film Llegaron de Noche, or “They Arrived at Night.” It is the first feature-length film to detail the murder of Jesuits working at the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (UCA). Directed by Imanol Uribe, who was born in El Salvador and is of Basque ancestry, the film premiered March 25th. 

Just as the links between Multmann’s book and the film are strong, there’s a similarly powerful link between the film’s main character, Lucía Barrera, the sole witness of the UCA murders, and the witness of the Blessed Virign Mary herself. 

“Love arises from the spirit and from freedom, not from desire or anxiety.”3

Like Mary, it was Lucía’s “yes” that made the first feature film on the murders possible. In fear of her own safety and that of her family, she happens to be temporarily residing at the Jesuit university the very night that government troops enter and kill the Jesuits of the community as well as the cook, Elba Julia, and her daughter, Celina. Lucía is the first to notify other Jesuits of the murders, but her willingness to speak out and tell the truth puts her family in danger. They are forced  to flee for their safety because Lucía’s testimony compromises the official version of events, which were orchestrated by the Salvadoran government itself. 

We hear the truth for which Lucía is willing to risk her life throughout the film: there is no mystery as to the culprits, the Salvadoran government killed the Jesuits. Viewers of the film only see this truth for themselves towards the end. Even Lucía’s  husband tries to convince Lucía to take the easier way, to say what others want to hear, but with the help of the Jesuit priests she trusts, Lucía ultimately decides otherwise.

“Sympathy is the openness of a person to the present of another. It has the structure of dialogue.”4 

There are biblical parallels throughout the course of the film. Lucía and her family, like the Holy Family, must flee for their own safety from murderous forces. They seek shelter at the Jesuit university. The Jesuits of the community, like Jesus in the garden, pray before their own death. We also see that one Jesuit must have been reading Multmann’s The Crucified God moments before his own execution, the camera angle includes the title right next to the murdered body.  

Politics are at play throughout the film– be it between the UCA Jesuit community and the El Salvadoran government, or between embassies of various governments of the West, or between Jesuit provinces or conferences, or even within the Jesuit community itself.

The film’s scenes are brief. They begin and end as quickly as doors open and close. The tension is simmering. A college class is interrupted by a Jesuit superior to quell it. Then the actual murders occur. What follows is inter-government miscommunication regarding when, how, and with whom Lucía and her family would be evacuated abroad. Even once in the supposed safety of another country, just how long the process would be dragged out before the truth could be told more broadly seems to take equally as long. It is not hard to feel some of the same exhaustion Lucía and her spouse must have felt as they were continuously interviewed, insulted, and even assaulted. 

After watching Llegaron de Noche, I couldn’t help but ask myself several difficult questions: 

Would I be willing to take a similar stand for justice today? What is it that I would give my life for, anyway? Where and when am I not speaking, although I should be?

The last movie that I remember having a similar feeling or invitation was Spotlight. That movie ends with a phone call and the audience is left to wonder, “Who is on the other end? What will they say? What might I know that needs to be shared?”

“The opposite of love is not wrath, but indifference.”5

Ultimately, we are all called to give testimony, to be witnesses. Thanks to the courage of one woman, Mary, we were given the savior of the world. Now through another woman, Lucía, we have a movie that rightly invites each and every one of us to be courageous and committed to the truth.  Lucía’s story shows us that such a stance will undoubtedly cause trouble for other people who would prefer to live comfortably in the status quo, as unjust as it may be. When sides need to be taken, when simple dialogue no longer suffices, whose side are we willing to take? We know that God has a preferential option for the poor and outcast. Do we share and manifest that same preference?

A quote from The Crucified God that captures so much of the spirit of the movie is “Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present.”6 Where, in your life, might you be invited to move from indifference to love? How might you be invited to put such love into action?

*This film is currently playing in theaters abroad, and not yet available for online viewing.

Edited on 18 April 2022, 6:21am


  1. Jürgen Multmann, The Crucified God, pg. 194
  2. Ibid. pg. 196
  3. Ibid. pg. 194
  4. Ibid. pg.196
  5. Ibid. pg. 196
  6. Ibid.  pg. 185

Patrick Hyland, SJ

phylandsj@thejesuitpost.org   /   All posts by Patrick