Plenty of atrocities have been committed in the name of some religion or other, but in Guatemala this tragic hypocrisy is especially resonant in the wake of the country’s nearly 40-year civil war. That’s because Guatemala’s one-time dictator and convicted war criminal Efraín Rios Montt had converted to an evangelical strain of Protestantism – and was actually practicing as a minister – when he was tapped by military leaders to head up the coup d’état that would install him as president in 1982.
So it’s no surprise that Rios Montt’s bloody tenure was couched in fiery religious language, and in his inauguration speech, the former army general even framed himself as a humble servant of the Lord spreading peace and love. It’s an irony that wasn’t lost on first-time Guatemalan director Izabel Acevedo, who titled her exploration of Rios Montt’s warcrimes trial 31 years later El buen cristiano (The Good Christian).
The film approaches Rios Montt’s contentious legacy from two perspectives: that of the dictator himself, and that of Francisco Chávez, who together with his sister was left orphaned by the Guatemalan army’s campaign of genocide. The two subjects converge at the heated trial that found Rios Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, before the conviction was overturned by the Constitutional Court of Guatemala only 10 days later.
Incorporating archival footage and original interviews with footage of the trial, El buen cristiano juxtaposes the rise of Rios Montt with the story of Francisco Chávez and asks some difficult questions about the legacy of dictatorship in Guatemala. Unfortunately, with the ultimate outcome of Rios Montt’s trial still pending, it’s a legacy that the country still hasn’t overcome.