There Be Dragons, the latest feature film by British director Roland Joffé, may be the most widely anticipated film among Catholics since Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Joffé, a self-declared agnostic, has nevertheless been seen as fair to the Catholic Church in previous films, especially The Mission (1986). And given the popularity of Ron Howard's The Da Vinci Code (2006), which painted the conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei in villainous colors, Joffé's decision to make a movie that portrayed the founder of Opus Dei, Josemaría Escrivá, in a positive light showed a certain willingness to flout the political correctness of Hollywood.
Unfortunately, There Be Dragons does not quite live up to its potential. As producer and director, Roland Joffé has created a solid film, good but not great. As writer, however, Joffé has let his own preoccupations overshadow his subject. And that's a shame, not least because it is clear from the movie that Joffé is one of the few directors who could have done justice to the life of St. Josemaría Escrivá.
Roland Joffé's Dragons
As a precondition for taking on the project, Joffé insisted on complete creative control, which is the source of the film's strengths and its weaknesses. The film is "based on true events"; while the outlines of the portion of Josemaría Escrivá's life presented in the movie are broadly accurate, most of the scenes in which Escrivá appears are fictional. That's not to say that they are untrue—indeed, quite the opposite. Like all good fiction, they work because they express the truth in a distilled form. Watching scenes from Escrivá's childhood, his days in the seminary, his life as a young priest, his founding of Opus Dei, and his days on the run during the Spanish Civil War, one has the sense that Joffé has captured the essence of the man.
Yet Joffé has captured the essence of another man as well—not Manolo Torres (played by Wes Bentley), the fictional friend of the saint whom Joffé invented as a foil for Escrivá, but Joffé himself. And that's where the movie becomes something other than what it could have been. "There be dragons" refers not to any element of the life of Escrivá but to the passions that, until the final days of his life, threaten to consume Manolo. The last words of the film, not spoken but displayed on screen, remind us that there's a little bit—and perhaps more than a little bit—of Manolo Torres inside every one of us, a thought that clearly haunts Joffé.
In Search of St. Josemaría Escrivá
That's a good lesson to keep in mind, of course, but it overwhelms the obvious lesson of Josemaría Escrivá's life—that we are all called to sanctity, and that we can and should and must achieve it within the confines of our everyday life. The film's happy ending may offer hope for those who, with Manolo, can say in the depths of their despair "I no longer knew what I believed," but for those who do know what they believe, the final scenes do not come as a surprise. And indeed, as other reviewers have noted, they may leave one wondering why Josemariá was left stranded in the 1930's, while the last third or so of the film focused on Manolo.
I think the answer lies again within the life of Roland Joffé. I have an idea what he was attempting to accomplish, though I cannot say for certain that I am right.
The film opens with an oddly affecting scene. As the camera slowly swoops into the office of Josemaría Escrivá, it becomes clear that the action in the shot has been paused. Papers and other objects are suspended in the air above and beside a desk; the desk chair is in the process of falling to the floor; and then, just as the camera lights on the lifeless body of Escrivá, the action suddenly resumes, and body and chair crash to the floor amid a shower of pages. Meanwhile, a voiceover by Robert Torres (played by Dougray Scott), Manolo's son and a journalist who is investigating the life of Josemaría during his canonization, informs the audience that this is the story of how he went looking for a saint and found his father instead.
Some Catholic reviewers have focused on that line as summing up what is wrong with the movie—the focus is on Manolo, not on Josemaría (played by Charlie Cox). But that, it seems to me, is not what Joffé intended. The film is almost slavishly symmetrical, with every scene of Josemaría's life having its counterpart later in Manolo's. Joffé has set up a parallel between the opening scene and the final scene, so that, through the unfolding of the story of Manolo, we are meant to find Josemaría. If I am correct, and that is indeed what Joffé intended, I'm afraid he didn't quite pull it off.
The Highs and Lows of There Be Dragons
I don't mean to be overly critical. There Be Dragons is a good movie, well worth seeing, and it should appeal not merely to Catholics or broadly to Christians, but to anyone interested in examining both the goodness and the evil that dwell in men's souls. The portrayal of the Spanish Civil War is largely evenhanded, among the best cinematic treatments of that horrific conflict, though Joffé is at pains to separate the "idealistic" red brigades from the Republican government, whose persecution of the Church he does not paper over.
Escrivá's own views on the conflict are presented as something of a middle way between the communists and the fascists, which is perhaps an oversimplification that implies a certain naiveté. Joffé himself suggests as much by ending a scene in which Escrivá urges the young men with him to concentrate on changing themselves rather than the world (good Christian advice) with the announcement that the Republican government has begun killing priests.
The end of Manolo's life provides a lesson that Christians will recognize immediately: God can use even the greatest of our sins as the foundation of our redemption. For non-Christians, however, that lesson may not be clear, and for them elements of Manolo's death may bear a sappy resemblance to a scene from The Ghost Whisperer.
Parental Guidance and Final Thoughts
There Be Dragons is rated PG-13 for "violence and combat sequences, some language and thematic elements." There is one important scene in which sexual activity is discussed in almost quaintly veiled terms and no language more offensive than sh-t and d-mn. Two scenes of murder, one of a Catholic priest and another at the hands of Manolo, may be too intense for children younger than 13, but throughout the film, blood and gore is kept to a minimum—a remarkable achievement in itself, considering the number and intensity of the battle scenes.
Roland Joffé is to be commended for his willingness to take on a project that, because of its subject matter, was unlikely to achieve critical acclaim, and There Be Dragons is well worth watching on its own terms. It suffers only in comparison with the film that it could have been.