NEW YORK -- Actor Raul Julia says something strange happened to him while he was filming "Romero," a new motion picture portrayal of the El Salvadoran archbishop slain in 1980. He became a Catholic. Again. "I had been a lapsed Catholic," he told New York Newsday columnist Dennis Duggan, "and I had what you might call a conversion back to my faith during the filming. I had stopped going to church. For years I saw only the negative aspects of my church." The 49-year-old actor, whose previous films include "Kiss of the Spider Woman," portrays Archbishop Oscar Romero in the Paulist Pictures film that opens at theaters in major cities Sept. 8. In Washington, it will be shown at the Outer Circle Theater, 4849 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Romero was killed in 1980 by a government death squad for championing the rights of the poor against the violent military dictatorship. The movie encompasses the three years leading to his assassination, and follows Romero's transformation from a bookish sideline observer of conflict in El Salvador into a vociferous critic of that country's dictatorship and the small group of aristocratic rich whose interests the military enforced. The film comes at a critical time in U.S.-El Salvadoran relations. Catholic and Protestant leaders in the United States have stepped up their criticism of human-rights violations since Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani took office in June. The church officials say that Jesuit priests in El Salvador face harassment, intimidation and violence similar to attacks they endured during the years they worked closely with Romero. Jesuit leaders say a propaganda campaign against their order in the Salvadoran press and by U.S.-backed government officials has helped incite the incidents, most recently a bombing at the Jesuit-run university there. "There have been accusations that Jesuits are dealing with the rebels, that the university is a hotbed of opposition to the government," said the Rev. Richard Buhler, executive secretary of the U.S. Jesuit Conference, with headquarters in Washington. The order says those allegations are untrue, he said. "I think it's a concerted effort by the government to test its power against the church." The new film's only mention of U.S. involvement in El Salvador is one line where the archbishop tells his people he has asked the American president {Jimmy Carter} to stop military aid to the Salvadoran government. Written by John Sacret Young, the executive producer and writer of ABC-TV's successful "China Beach" series and directed by Australian John Duigan, "Romero" represents the first time a Catholic production company has financed, made and released a major commercial film, according to the Rev. Ellwood Kieser, president of Paulist Pictures and the movie's producer. Filmed in Mexico, the $3.4 million production received $200,000 from U.S. Catholic bishops; $238,000 from the Catholic Communication Campaign; $100,000 from the Paulist order; and $50,000 from the Latin America office of the United States Catholic Conference. According to Kieser, the rest of the money came from loans and grants. As the movie makes clear, Romero's selection as bishop initially displeased the more activist clerics in El Salvador at the time, but delighted those more traditional clerics who were sympathetic to the right-wing, repressive status quo. Both sides thought Romero's elevation to the head of the strife-ridden San Salvador archdiocese would be business as usual, that he would be a caretaker bishop. Romero's assassination helped galvanize the U.S. Catholic bishops' strong resistance to continued U.S. military aid to El Salvador. Playing the part of Romero inspired Julia, who lives in New York, in another direction. He has become an advocate of New York's poor, working with underpaid Chinese workers, minority homemakers from the Bronx and an activist housing group in Brooklyn. Romero "is a man who gave his life to help the poor in his country," Julia said. "That doesn't happen anymore. He could have walked away from them. He knew his life was in jeopardy. But he chose death. "What impressed me the most about Romero is that he saw the people who came to his church as the church. The church was not an intellectual matter for him, it was a living experience."