‘The Art of Political Murder’ Review

Very few documentaries can also be labeled political crime thrillers, but that description fits Paul Taylor’s documentary The Art of Political Murder, based on Francisco Goldman’s 2014 book. It’s a blend of history, religion, corruption, and investigative work as it all relates to a brutal murder. Even in these times when trust is broken on so many fronts, we as viewers are left wondering how something like this could happen.

The Guatemalan Civil War spanned 1960-1996 and had the right-wing military facing off against leftist rebels supported by the indigenous Mayans. More than 200,000 civilians were killed, and the people’s faith in their government was destroyed. But this isn’t the story of the war. Bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera publicly condemned the government and military for war crimes and atrocities in his deeply researched REMHI (Recovery of Historical Memory Project) report. Two days later on April 26, 1998, 78-year old Bishop Gerardi was murdered. Savagely murdered. Bludgeoned in the head and face with a concrete slab, outside his parish home.

The bulk of the film is dedicated to what happened after the April 26, 1998 murder: a botched crime scene, numerous theories, citizen protests, and a high-profile trial. It’s really the stories behind the story. Bishop Gerardi was an outspoken activist for the Mayan people and he was beloved by many. However, the exploration of the police investigation left many wondering what kind of government would issue a state-sponsored hit on a religious leader of the people.

We hear from the key witness and see clips of the prosecutors. There are interviews with a journalist and activists, and we learn of some of the theories of who killed Bishop Gerardi and why. These theories included: organized crime, drug traffickers, and church thieves. It was even proposed that it was a crime of passion. Not only does the film chronicle the police investigation, but we are also privy to the more fascinating investigation into the investigation. It’s an exploration of the crime and its aftermath – including governmental and military corruption, and more attempted violence. The clips from the courtroom scenes are stunning, and although those at the highest level may never answer for what happened, the dedication of Bishop Gerardi is still remembered.

The Art of Political Murder is available on HBO.