There Be Dragons Redux
When Special Features Detract
Ultimately, I think will stand by my original assessment that Roland Joffe’s latest feature film is “a somewhat stylized cross between Doctor Zhivago and, well, Fried Green Tomatoes”… as long as you understand that the latter reference is not intended as complimentary. And it’s worth noting that I might well have said “Fried Green Rotten Tomatoes,” as the film has been blasted with a rank 11% fresh critic’s rating on the tomatometer (though it fares much higher with audiences at 68%).
“It aims for epic scope in its ill-fated romance between a communist partisan and right-wing spy,” I wrote in June last year, “and it succeeds admirably, coming off on that score much like a rather less poetic Atonement.” I elaborated:
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. … 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.
What I didn’t mention in my review (because other critics had not yet weighed in) was my suspicion that the film would get largely panned by reviewers and audiences alike—and not because it’s a bad film per se, but rather because it’s far too ambitious, complex, and challenging for its own good. A great many things about the plotting and construction are out-and-out confusing—and without the awkward and stilted voiceover/montage sequences that intrude in the late going (and which are frankly never a good sign), audiences would likely miss a great deal of the film’s symbolism and meaning. And that presumes that audiences have even stuck with the slowly-paced film long enough to get that far.
I dropped a great number of film titles in my original review as points of comparison, but I missed probably the most relevant touchstone: Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, which was butchered upon its initial theatrical release in the U.S. The home video release of Dragons comes equipped with a literally almost endless collection of deleted and alternate scenes, and it’s not hard to see that Joffe intended Dragons to play something like Once Upon a Time in Spain—a detailed saga of boyhood friendship resentment gone epically awry—and that the film’s producers were as impatient with Joffe’s vision as Leone’s producers were with him. As filmed, There Be Dragons is a sprawling tedious mess, and a screening of the deleted material yields a great deal of insight into the finished film’s deficiencies.
They also almost make me want to reneg on my original review of the film.
Almost, but not quite. And here’s why. Even though Joffe overreached himself here, and made it nearly impossible to patch together a coherent cut of the film, what Joffe was aiming for was so much more worthwhile than films like Avatar, The Dark Knight, or Inglourious Basterds—to name just a few. And while those films are ultimately far more finely crafted (and, uh, successful) than Dragons, ultimately empty, self-referential, pseudo-profound popcorn flicks like those don’t hold a candle in my book to less successful films that are about ideas that really matter.
Josemaría Escrivá didn’t infiltrate romanticized blue-skinned alien cultures, deal with his inner demons by donning a cape and mask in highly improbable fashion, or work out the problem of evil in a violent alternate-reality fetish fantasy. No; in the context of the very real Spanish Civil War, which literally pitted brother against brother, Escrivá worked out his commitment to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” in a practical and lasting fashion. And Joffe tells that story in a way that just might—just might, mind you—radicalize your faith just a little.
So I’ll still recommend the film… but also recommend you skip the deleted scenes!
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.