By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published May 12, 2011
“There Be Dragons,” the new film by Roland Joffé, tells the story of a simple priest who became a saint. Joffé superimposes this story against the sweeping backdrop of the Spanish Civil War to create a film that at times seems overblown but never loses its heart. Ultimately, “There Be Dragons” is uplifting, demonstrating the simple power of faith and forgiveness.
From Catholic News Service:
Probably acceptable for older teens. Occasionally bloody action violence, a few sexual references, a couple of crude and a half-dozen crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
The heart of “There Be Dragons” is the story of St. Josemaria Escrivá. He was born in Spain in 1902. A product of a privileged background, his life changed first by the deaths of three of his younger sisters, and then by the failure of his father’s business. He recognized his religious vocation early, and as a teenager became determined to serve others. He studied the law as well as attending seminary, and he was ordained as a priest in 1925.
In October of 1928, at the age of only 26, the young priest was inspired to form what would become Opus Dei, or “Work of God.” The Opus Dei movement recognized the value of people serving God in their ordinary lives. His vision was of people looking for God in every aspect of their daily lives – their work, their relationships – until they were transformed into “saints in the world.” It sanctified and elevated even the most humble of endeavors, and Father Escrivá’s followers offered up their work for God and for their fellow man.
The formation of Opus Dei was not an easy one. The early growth of the movement coincided with the events of the Spanish Civil War, a time of great religious persecution. Father Escrivá was forced into hiding for a period, and even escaped to France for a while, but eventually he returned to Spain for the duration of the war. After the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War, much of Europe was plunged into World War II, but Father Escrivá and his followers continued to build upon the foundation of Opus Dei. By 1950, the movement had spread beyond Spain and Portugal, and Pope Pius XII granted definitive papal approval of Opus Dei.
In the following decades, the movement formed apostolates across the globe; it also became one of the most controversial groups within the Catholic Church because of its alleged secrecy and extreme practices. Father Escrivá led Opus Dei until his death in 1975, traveling around the world to spread his belief in the sanctity of man’s endeavor. In 2002, he was canonized by Pope John Paul II.
The film portrays most of the events of Escrivá’s early life, illustrating how his beliefs were formed and how he was inspired to create Opus Dei. Structured as a study in contrasts, this biographical film introduces the fictional character of Manolo Torres as a counterpoint to the saintly Father Escrivá. The film opens in the 1970s as a journalist, Robert Torres, researches an article on the recently deceased cleric. He discovers that his estranged father, Manolo, knew Father Escrivá.
Although his reclusive father is reluctant to help him in his investigation, the younger Torres learns that the two men had grown up in the same village and, early in life, followed similar paths. Although they were in seminary together, their paths ultimately diverged. Escrivá became the saintly prelate, destined to impart his vision of a new way of worship to the world. Manolo Torres took a darker path and became involved in unsavory activities. While Father Escrivá and his followers were persecuted for their beliefs and ultimately forced into hiding, Torres became a spy in the war, living a duplicitous life and drawn into a tragic obsession with a female soldier dedicated to the Revolution.
The two men encounter each other at pivotal points in their lives. The darkness inherent in Torres’ life mirrors the spiritual light revealed as the driving force for St. Escrivá. Ultimately, the film becomes a study in patience and most of all forgiveness, as the pair’s final encounter demonstrates that, for all of Manolo’s mistakes and bad decisions, he is still a child of God, deserving of grace. This structure underlines the representation of St. Escrivá’s piety by highlighting not only how he accepted his calling, but how he might address one whose choices were so diametrically opposed to his own.
The addition of the character of Torres serves to add action to the film’s plot, which includes elements reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” The Spanish Civil War is a neglected period, so the film serves as an interesting lesson. At times, though, the struggles of the revolutionaries tend to overshadow the internal struggles of the priest and his followers.
The actors do a fine job representing the major characters and the forces that shape them. Although, as Father Escrivá, Charlie Cox does a good job of portraying the young man as saintly, but not overbearing. His piety is like a warm cloak he is willing to share with those around him. The film shies away from most of the more controversial aspects of Opus Dei, but it does touch on some of his ascetic practices in a way that is respectful. As Manolo Torres, Wes Bentley is more charismatic, and the actor shows clearly the pain and struggle he brings upon himself. These two are surrounded by a host of excellent supporting actors, including Dougray Scott, Derek Jacobi, Geraldine Chaplin and Charles Dance.
The look of “There Be Dragons” is spot on, with locations, sets and costumes that add to the historical period portrayed in the film. The representations of the primal moments of St. Escrivá’s early career—his calling to the priesthood, his vision for Opus Dei—are done especially well, giving a reverent literal interpretation to an essential spiritual experience.
Showing St. Escrivá as a humble man, whose life was built on a series of simple choices and a capacity for recognizing his destiny, helps to reinforce the message he sought to spread. Whether one agrees with the tenets of Opus Dei or not, “There Be Dragons” is a forceful movie, with an interesting subject.