Director: Roland Joffé
Starring: Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Dougray Scott, Olga Kurylenko, Rodrigo Santoro
Opus Dei, meaning “the work of God,” is a secretive and somewhat controversial Catholic order whose public image has not been helped by its portrayal in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The confusingly titled There Be Dragons provides an alternate, positive portrayal largely through its focus on the early life of the order’s founder, Saint Josemaria Escriva. This sympathetic portrayal is unsurprising given two of the film’s producers are Opus Dei members.
British director Roland Joffé hasn’t been at his best since the mid-1980s when he made The Killing Fields and The Mission back to back, getting Oscar nominations for both. But he has always been willing to explore Christian and spiritual themes in his filmmaking, particularly against historical backdrops. This made There Be Dragons, which explores themes of forgiveness, conscience and the morality of war against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, a perfect match for him.
There Be Dragons parallels the stories of two childhood friends, one a saint and one a sinner, during the Spanish Civil War: Josemaria Escriva, a priest forced to flee Spain over the Pyrenees in order to escape persecution, and Manolo Torres, a spy who has infiltrated a group of fascist rebels. Of the two it is Manolo, a fictional character introduced by Joffé, who becomes the real protagonist despite being unlikeable. This is problematic as his character lacks clarity, you don’t know what motivates him, and therefore he is difficult to emotionally engage with. Escriva is also a very simplistic, two-dimensional character. He never seems to be conflicted about making what should be difficult decisions to do the right thing in the face of terrible situations, which reduces the emotional impact of the stance he takes.
There Be Dragons struggles to overcome a convoluted story which lacks context and clarity. The Spanish Civil War was a complicated conflict involving fascists, communists and anarchists, but There Be Dragons doesn’t give you enough insight into the ideology of the conflict. So unless you have the required prior knowledge, you don’t really understand where our central characters fit on the ideological spectrum. Similarly, unless you already have an understanding of Opus Dei, it is not until the epilogue that you are informed about the significance of Escriva. So while the picture has some quite impressive moments, particularly visually, the fact that you don’t gain any particular insight into either Opus Dei or the Spanish Civil War is disappointing.
Rating – ★☆
Review by Duncan McLean