There Be Dragons
Sister Rose at the Movies
By Sr. Rose Pacatte, FSP
MAY 6, 2011 - A Spanish journalist living in London, Robert Torres (Dougray Scott) , is assigned to research a Catholic priest, Josemaria Escriva, the founder of a Catholic group called Opus Dei. He had died the year before, in 1975, and there was a lot of talk about making him a saint.
Robert, who has not spoken to his father Manolo (Wes Bentley) in eight years, is surprised to learn that he and Escriva (Charlie Cox) came from the same village and studied at the same seminary for a year. He heads home to Spain, hoping to learn more about Escriva and his father’s secretive past, but Manolo refuses to talk to him.
Manolo grew up in a wealthy family but his father was rigid, even cruel while Josemaria grew up in a large family with much love. From the time they are children, Manolo’s envy of Josemaria simmers until they get into a brawl at the seminary. Manolo leaves after the first year even though the rector thinks both can choose to follow Christ as priests.
After ordination Josemaria gathers a few young men who want to live their daily lives in holiness. Eventually, he asks the bishop permission to start a community of lay people, men and women, even married couples. Their mission will be to teach people how to sanctify their daily life and work.
When the Spanish Civil War breaks out in 1939, Manolo becomes a spy and joins the socialists as a guerilla fighter with ex-convicts and foreign sympathizers. He falls in love with a beautiful Hungarian revolutionary fighter, Ildiko (Olga Kurylenko). Though friendly at first, she is repulsed by his jealousy when she is attracted to their leader. Manolo’s jealousy intensifies when Ildiko becomes pregnant.
It is a trying time for Catholic clergy who celebrate mass and minister to people clandestinely. Josemaria finally agrees to leave Spain by escaping over the Pyrenees into France.
Roland Joffe, who was nominated for Academy Awards for “The Killing Fields” (1984) and “The Mission” (1986), wrote and directed “There Be Dragons”. It is not a biopic of St. Josemaria Escriva. Instead, Joffe decided to write a fictional original script that sets up two men in a Cain and Abel kind of story, one who chooses good and one who chooses evil. The narrative emphasizes the choices we make in life, consequences, the fidelity of friendship, love and forgiveness. The title, “There Be Dragons” comes from ancient maps of the world that descrfibed unknown regions thus “Here be dragons.” Joffe’s dragons, however, are spiritual, and all of us must face them.
The film’s cinematography is gorgeous and the historic scenes and reenactments appear authentic. Main photography was done in Spain and Argentina. The visual motifs, especially the religious and spiritual, are integrated well into the story.
There are some luminous moments in the film. I particularly liked the one where Josemaria and Manolo visit the chocolate factory owned by Mr. Escriva. The manager, Honorio (Sir Derek Jacobi), asks the boys to analyze the flavor of the chocolate and explains that “patience, skill, hard work and love” are needed to experience the divine essence of chocolate. These traits impress Josemaria and he makes them part of “The Work” or “Opus Dei” as his mother translates it, that will be his life.
Joffe also has Josemaria explaining the persecution of the Church during the Spanish Civil War. When some of the young men in “The Work” want to start a pro-Christian crusade in the midst of the fighting, Josemaria stops them, explaining that it will only add fuel to the fight. One young man asks why people hate the Church so much, and Josemaria says, “Because they see us as part of a system that causes them pain.” The Spanish Civil War remains a very complex time in European history and I think this idea is valid.
“There Be Dragons” is not a biopic about St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer who was canonized in 2002. Instead it is the story of two men who chose very different paths in life. Other than the extreme violence, that I found jarring, there is no controversy, such as that generated by “The Da Vinci Code” (2006) because there is simply not enough information about “Opus Dei” to talk about. To me, Opus Dei as an organization is Christian, yes, but its mission as expressed here is vague and non- specific. After all, we are all called to holiness in our daily lives, so what is unique about Opus Dei? The film does not explore this dimension. Two of the producers for the film belong to Opus Dei and an Opus Dei priest served as the consultant. Therefore, I think those who know Opus Dei probably won’t learn anything new, but neither will those of us who do not belong to the institute.
The bottom line is that Josemaria Escriva lived in extraordinary times and founded a movement, a secular institute that was approved by the church in 1950, to teach people the holiness of ordinary life and work. Bl. John Paul II established Opus Dei as a Personal Prelature in 1982, naming a bishop to govern the institute no matter where members live and work. St. Josemaria strove for holiness in prayer and through good works, and in one discreet scene is shown practicing self-flagellation while praying.
“There Be Dragons” asks viewers to believe Manolo’s extreme violence and darkness of soul in contrast to Josemaria’s rather sweet persona. Robert is asked to go to the very limits of a human being’s capacity to forgive. I can understand why Joffe had to throw the weight of the story on Manolo and Robert; to tell Escriva’s inner story outright would be almost impossible in a feature film without Manolo’s extreme behavior. To me, the story stretches credibility somewhat. However, the themes of forgiveness, love and the fidelity of friendship, can inspire.
At the end, Manolo holds a rosary that Josemaria had given him long ago. “I still have the rosary you gave me” he says, clutching the beads tightly in his gnarled hands, “but I have never prayed it.” His very prayer, the look on his face, and the tone of his voice, belie the faith, however weak, that he reveals from the depths of his tortured soul. God’s grace and mercy are infinite.