First the bad news, for adolescent viewers, anyway: there don't be any dragons. Not the leathery-winged kind, at least. The title refers to a medieval map-making custom of inscribing the warning "Hic Sunt Dracones" on unexplored regions. In this case the warning refers to the unexplored regions of the psyche, where destructive emotions may lurk.
The film shows us the early life of Josemaria Escriva (1902-1975), recently canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church and best known as the founder of the organization Opus Dei. Escriva had an original, yet simple, idea: that a Christian can follow the path of holiness while living and working in the secular world. Of course, Christians have been shunning the world to live a life of radical dedication to Christ ever since St. Anthony of the desert. But, Escriva reasoned, Christ himself spent many years working in a carpenter's shop, while living in a village alongside ordinary people. Why can't Christians do the same?
The idea sounds benign enough, but some view Opus Dei with suspicion. The last time it showed up in a major motion picture was in The Da Vinci Code (2006), represented by an albino monk and murderer. Opus Dei members adhere to traditional Christian beliefs, and are suspected of (according to Wikipedia) "alleged secretiveness, its recruiting methods, the alleged strict rules governing members, the practice by celibate members of mortification of the flesh, its alleged elitism and misogyny, the alleged right-leaning politics of most of its members, and the alleged participation by some in authoritarian or extreme right-wing governments, especially the Francoist Government of Spain."
But if you're assuming the dragons in this film relate to Escriva's dark side, you'd be surprised. There Be Dragons presents Escriva and his companions in a consistently positive light. They are unfailingly noble, courageous, self-sacrificial, and kind; and they are simply appealing, in terms of looking like a group of friends you'd enjoy hanging out with. Considering how many culture-war strikes there are against Opus Dei and its founder, that's surprising and refreshing. Dragons presents an interesting comparison with director Roland Joffe's excellent 1986 film, The Mission, in which 18th century Jesuits sought to protect South American Indians from Portuguese slave traders, a theme which was seen as friendly to left-wing Christianity and Liberation theology. That Joffe now presents Escriva and his Opus Dei as heroic is certainly intriguing.
The story, set in Spain in the early 1900s, begins with Robert Torres, an author charged with preparing a biography of Escriva. In the course of research he learns, to his surprise, that his estranged father, Manolo, and Escriva were childhood friends. We return to that childhood, and see that Manolo's family is wealthy and proud, while Josemaria's is happy and loving. When Josemaria's family business fails, Manolo's dad forbids his son to see his friend any more, reinforcing the lesson with a beating. "He thought poverty was contagious," the now-aged Manolo explains in voiceover. Manolo conceives a deep envy for his friend. "My dad had more cars, houses, and money, but Josemaria had more dad." Manolo's father instructs him: "When push comes to shove, a man has only one duty: to choose the winning side."
Hmmm, getting kind of heavy-handed there. Every time we see Manolo on screen, he is scowling—angry at the world. But why? Sure, his dad was tough, but that doesn't seem sufficient explanation. So maybe he's just bad-tempered by nature? The expression is so constant that it begins to look like pouting.
As they reach adulthood the lives of the young men diverge. Manolo, furious about a strike that he believes killed his father, joins the right-wing forces who are seeking to overthrow the new left-wing government. He infiltrates the communist republican forces as a spy, and lives a hungry, miserable life with them on the run. What motivated this pampered, rich boy to make such sacrifices? How does he become capable of truly shocking betrayal? We're not told.
Josemaria, on the other hand, is now a priest, and tends his flock diligently and at great risk. At a surprise party (happy, admiring people are always surrounding Josemaria), a friend holds up his shoe and points out the large hole in the sole. This is "a testament to 20 kilometers a day, seven days a week, rain or shine." Josemaria is humble but confident, and loved by all; Manolo is nearly always frowning, and even in a crowd he is alone.
The Spanish Civil War is sometimes romanticized as a conflict between freedom-loving lefties and evil right-wingers; even Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca fought for that noble losing side. But in Dragons both sides are realistically shown as bloodthirsty and cruel. The left in Spain, as elsewhere, was violently anti-Christian, and in a shocking scene a small band of marauders push a priest down the street, then shoot him and spit on his body. In response, Josemaria's friends wish to arm themselves, but he tells them that they must instead pray both for Fr. Lazaro and for his murderers: "Our faith is a gift and we are called to manifest it as love, even if they are wrong."
I'm glad to see Christian faith presented accurately and in such positive terms, but I have to say it costs the movie something in terms of drama. Josemaria is simply too good. He seems to have no struggles or doubts. Though we greatly admire him, we can't identify with him. He has nowhere to grow.
Director Joffe told the National Catholic Register that he didn't want to focus on Josemaria's failings. That would be "the conventional approach," he says, and adds, "He had many of them, but they weren't major." (What a sensible view.) Instead, Joffe wanted to give us "an example of someone going through a spiritual crisis" who nevertheless continued to love others. That's a promising idea—but, really, not much spiritual crisis comes across. Although other characters talk of God's silence, Josemaria does not voice agreement. He weeps and prays in secret, repenting of his anger and hatred—but we never see him express anger or hatred. It appears that he has mastery over such feelings, but repents that he was tempted. He never stops being a saint. It's been awhile, I think, since a major film has given a traditional clergyman that kind of treatment (Bing Crosby? Spencer Tracy?), and that deserves recognition—but it still takes the fizz out of the drama.
It's a shame there's this deficit, because the film is otherwise beautifully made, and handles profound questions with thoughtfulness and delicacy. The problem of evil, for example. After the death of a sibling, a child asks his mother, "Do you hate God now?" and she replies, through tears, "No, I love him more than ever." And, in the film's most intriguing sequence, an abused woman tells Josemaria, "All this praying and he just stays silent. He is a monster, you know? I love him …. I fight him with love, like you."
The overarching theme of the movie is forgiveness, and marches toward the moment when Robert must forgive his father. This is a deep subject, and one that lends itself well to storytelling. But here, too, there's an empty spot. Why does Robert feel such anger toward his father? Was he just an absent, uninvolved dad? Or was there something more? We can't ache with Robert as he goes through this process, since we don't know what it costs him.
There are profound themes in this film, and Christian faith is treated with commendable respect, but there's still something missing. A movie doesn't need to have CGI dragons to be exciting. But it does need to have real characters and real conflict—it needs to be a real story. In There Be Dragons, that story always seems to be just beyond our grasp.Discussion starters
- Early on, a priest tells young Manolo and Escriva, "The withholding of forgiveness is the one thing our Lord made clear cannot be forgiven." Viewers might double-take, recalling that Jesus said the "unforgiveable sin" is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31). However, he also said that those who do not forgive will not be forgiven (Matthew 6:15). In that light, do you think the priest's statement is valid?
- Are you aware of maintaining unforgiveness toward anyone? Is the reluctance to forgive due to fear of being hurt again? Is it legitimate to forgive the past, yet decide to keep a distance from the person in the present and future?
- When someone points out that Josemaria's priestly cassock makes him a target, he responds that he does not wear it for protection. However, later he stops wearing it and dons secular clothing. Do you think that would be a difficult decision for this character? Does it indicate a lack of courage on his part?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
There is a fair amount of war footage in this film—explosions, blood, and guns. Some scenes would be too intense for younger viewers.
Photos © Samuel Goldwyn Films
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