The murder in “The Art of the Political Murder,” a documentary based on the book of the same title by Francisco Goldman, is the killing of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera in Guatemala in 1998. Suspiciously, his death came two days after he had presented a report on human rights abuses during the country’s decades-long civil war, which had ended in 1996.
A possible political motive for Gerardi’s assassination was obvious; a high-profile death might frighten victims who would otherwise come forward for atrocities trials. But for a time, a prosecutor pursued a theory that Gerardi had been killed by a German shepherd. Arturo Aguilar, who was part of an independent investigation run by the human rights office that Gerardi had directed, emphasizes the importance of following evidence and disregarding conjecture.
Others featured at length include Ronalth Ochaeta, who had worked with Gerardi on the human rights report and pursued the killers until he felt that his family was under threat; the journalist Claudia Méndez Arriaza, whom Goldman, in the movie, describes as the only reporter he knew tenacious enough to stick around through the most tedious stretches of the trial; and Goldman himself, who explains how the case became a test of Guatemala’s justice system.
The director, Paul Taylor, who uses re-enactments to visualize the night of the crime, clearly faced certain limitations of material, and the film has dry stretches as the interviewees relate a complicated history better-suited to a book. But the movie succeeds at weaving a web in which justice appears impossibly elusive — which gives the ending all the more punch.
The Art of Political Murder
Not rated. In Spanish and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. Watch on HBO Max.