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There be Dragons

Superfluous subplots detract from historical drama about Opus Dei’s founder

Photo: N/A, License: N/A, Created: 2009:09:13 10:59:55

Rodrigo Santoro goes to war, civilly, in There Be Dragons.

There be Dragons

Directed by Roland Joffé

Opens May 6.

Opus Dei hasn’t been cast in the most flattering light in recent years; think of Hollywood’s one-dimensional portrayal of zealotry in The Da Vinci Code, in which an Opus Dei devotee, played by a pasty Paul Bettany, unmercifully flagellates himself. Roland Joffé—the British director of mid-1980s hits The Killing Fields and The Mission—motions to redress Opus Dei’s warped public image in his most recent movie, There Be Dragons. (Neither pirates nor actual dragons are featured. The title refers to a cartographic practice that used depictions of dragons or sea serpents to indicate dangerous ocean waters.)

Dragons gives a somewhat muddled account of the life of Josemaría Escrivá. Escrivá, or Saint Josemaría, founded Opus Dei in 1928, less than a decade before the 1936 outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. This politically unstable time period is the setting for most of Joffé’s movie, which integrates two additional stories.

In 1982, Spanish journalist Robert (Scottish actor Dougray Scott) is researching Escrivá when he discovers that his estranged father (Wes Bentley) was once in the seminary with the late priest. Surprised, Robert calls his morose, aged father, who has sequestered himself from the world. Robert mentions the civil war; his father hangs up. After some flashbacks and a little more muzzy plot development, Robert’s father, Manolo, begins dictating the tale of his tangled past with Escrivá.

Rewind to 1911. In a small Spanish village, a young Manolo and a young Josemaría (Charlie Cox) grow up as friends of different economic standing—a factor which eventually leads Manolo’s father to forbid Manolo from associating with the strapped Escrivá family. (Geraldine Chaplin makes a cameo appearance in these early minutes.) Seven years later, in the seminary, an imperious Manolo derides Josemaría, who reacts hotheadedly. After briefly tussling, the two novices are yanked into a priest’s office and told, “Remember, the withholding of forgiveness is the one thing our Lord made clear that will not be forgiven.”

The sermon doesn’t take for Manolo, who drops out and becomes a Fascist spy after riotous union workers cause his father to suffer a fatal stroke. Josemaría wholeheartedly embraces forgiveness and begins writing letters to Manolo, who never replies. This clunky device lends the elderly Manolo some plausible authority to tell his son about Josemaría’s younger years while also explaining why he was a bad father.

Manolo’s and Josemaría’s journeys kinda-sorta intersect, but their stories largely diverge. The commonality, of course, is the treacherous climate of the Spanish Civil War, a precarious time for priests. A devout Josemaría struggles to fulfill his priestly duties and establish his organization; a loyal band of followers manages to protect him, helping him keep a low profile in the same fashion as hidden Jews during World War II. Meanwhile, Manolo becomes embroiled in Communist rebellions and an unrequited love story.

The flaws in There Be Dragons are mostly due to Joffé’s script. The material certainly suits him, as it merges Catholicism and politics in a manner vaguely similar to The Mission. The father/son storyline, however, feels superfluous. It gets in the way of the far more compelling factual events of Escrivá’s life. Joffé may have fared better with a straightforward saint biopic, a genre without too much fanfare, with the exceptions of Fred Zinneman’s A Man for All Seasons, Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc, and Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette.

Joffé, though, found it fitting to make Escrivá’s story secondary. In an interview with Catholic Online, he explained, “A saint doesn’t think that his life is the most important thing in the world . . . so I would be a poor scribe and a poor recounter of what Josemaría might have meant if I’d betrayed him by making his life the point of the story.”

Joffé, who is not a member of Opus Dei, broadens the scope of accurate knowledge about the organization’s mission: The importance of openness and reverence for tradition trumps that of extreme-seeming practices like self-flagellation. Joffé consulted with an Opus Dei priest during production, which perhaps accounts for the poignancy of the plot surrounding Escrivá. But the other strands obscuring his story detract from the energy of There Be Dragons, which ultimately makes a case for the power of fact over fiction.

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