There Be Dragons
A Very Timely Epic

It will probably be hard for most people not to be biased about There Be Dragons going into it—but give it a good shot if you can.

There Be Dragons has a lot going for it—and stacked against it.  It’s a fictionalized telling of how Opus Dei founder Josemaría Escrivá, a Roman Catholic priest, came to survive the Spanish Civil War and found what later became one of the most powerful, influential, and even hated of Catholic Orders.  Escriva would become canonized in 2002.

So right off the bat: you’ll be watching a movie about a real-life modern-day saint.  How’s that grab ya?  You can probably remember watching other movies about saints—A Man for All Seasons, Becket, Brother Sun, Sister Moon—and think, “Uh, oh.  I’m probably in for a tough slog of cerebral moralizing.”

If you’re familiar with director Roland Joffe’s body of work—The Killing Fields, The Mission, and more recent fluff-films and failures like The Scarlet Letter and Captivity—you’re probably apprehensive about whether Dragons will be a return to form or yet another spectacular bomb.

If you’ve followed any of the controversy about Opus Dei and/or The Da Vinci Code, you also might be thinking, “Oh my gosh!  No more controversy for me!  Is this just going to be propaganda to counter all the conspiracy nuts?”

Charlie Cox as Escrivá in There Be Dragons

You might even be a partisan in all the controversy, wishing either that Dragons would crush Dan Brown and other detractors into the dust with a definitive portrait of sanctity and holiness—or hoping to find more ammunition in a hopelessly biased whitewashing that would help to bring down the whole house of cards.

Finally: you might be wondering, “What on earth could that title possibly have to do with a story about a Catholic priest during the Spanish Civil War?”

Well, don’t let any of that stop you.

There Be Dragons is more a war epic than anything else, a somewhat stylized cross between Doctor Zhivago and, well, Fried Green Tomatoes—with some Becket thrown in for good measure.  Like Zhivago, it aims for epic scope in its ill-fated romance between a communist partisan and right-wing spy; and it succeeds admirably, coming off on that score much like a rather less poetic Atonement.

Like Tomatoes, it also utilizes a flashback storytelling structure, in this case revealing bits of the story through the eyes of an author researching the canonization of Escrivá; the author, Robert, also happens to be the son of Manolo, Josemaría’s childhood friend and eventual bitter enemy.  While this narrative device grates on my nerves like nobody’s business, the script and Joffe’s direction had me not only accepting it by the film’s midpoint, but embracing it by the film’s conclusion.  Despite the emphasis the film places on the Spanish Civil War, the lessons of Escrivá’s life work themselves out in a contemporary tale that we actually care about.  In many ways, the film says, “Controversies, claims to greatness, and global grousing aside, Escrivá’s teaching only matters if it makes a difference in the here and now.  And it does.”

On this score, by extension, the film also functions as an effective and relevant apologetic for the teachings of Jesus.  Josemaría Escrivá learns in the crucible of war that Scripture and its precepts are also meaningless unless they make a difference in times that try men’s souls.  To this end, and during this week in particular when America’s commitment to its founding Christian principles have been tested to the utmost and found rather wanting, There Be Dragons couldn’t be more valuable and timely.  The most unnerving sequence comes when Escrivá is finally convinced that he must leave Madrid for his own safety—and witnesses the murder of Lazaro, another priest.  Escrivá’s disciples naturally counsel retribution and resistance; but Escrivá has other priorities.

But like Becket, the film really works not because its core is polemic, romance, politics, or teaching, but because it pits two charismatic characters against each other.  Like Becket and Henry, Josemaría and Manolo have good reason to love each other and despise one another.  And like Henry, Manolo is in a power of life-or-death position to grant mercy or deny it; but unlike Becket, Josemaría is never in a position of authority over Manolo.  He must leave Manolo’s fate in God’s hands.

For the most part, the decisions about what to include in this story and what to exclude are judiciously and well made.  Subplots are all relevant, casting superbly highlights all the right characters with all the right beats, and Joffe never pursues any particular story thread past its welcome.  I was deeply moved by this film, and even provoked intellectually and theologically to consider to what extent I have harbored or released resentment toward my Heavenly Father for the perceived injustices in my life.  And I honestly can’t recall having a seen a movie in a long, long time that has accomplished something on that scale.  A film has probably not personally challenged me to this extent since Mindwalk.  I was frankly rather taken aback.

Now, this is not Joffe’s best work.  As in The Mission, he excessively stretches credibility when he reaches for metaphoric meaning, and his predilection for saintly visages trumps his ability to bring female characters to life (though I must say one heavenly encounter in mental hospital is very, very effective).  But this is still a film that should contribute to Joffe’s reputation rather than mark a further descent into obscurity and ridiculousness.

There Be Dragons is not dry and preachy; it attempts to neither fan nor quench the flames of distracting controversy; and it doesn’t allow itself to become a tool in one political campaign or another.  It’s good solid storytelling and effective moviemaking that deserves a wide audience… if only folks could get past all the distractions.

And yes—you find out the relevance of the title in the end.  Satisfyingly so.

There Be Dragons is rated PG-13 for “violence and combat sequences, some language and thematic elements.”  That’s all very fair.  This is not a film that is “so heavenly minded it is no earthly good.”  It’s gritty; it’s about the war in men’s souls, after all.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg reviewed a promotional screener of There Be Dragons.