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
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams
Terrence Malick is not your usual filmmaker. He was a philosophy student at Harvard who graduated summa cum laude before heading to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He was teaching at Massachusetts Institute of Technology before deciding to enrol at the American Film Institute. Since then he has had an intriguing 40 year career as a director which has amazingly only resulted in six feature films. While he left academia a long time ago, that philosophical streak still exists in his work, and as he has grown older his films have become increasingly contemplative and esoteric.
His last film, The Tree of Life, divided critics and audiences alike with some declaring it the film of the year while others found it excessively self-indulgent and pretentious. His new picture, To the Wonder is a similar style of film to Tree of Life, though likely a step further away from the mainstream and less well executed.
As a filmmaker, Malick is growing increasingly disinterested in narrative. So while To the Wonder has a narrative of sorts it is not really the primary focus of the film. We meet two outsiders living in Oklahoma. Marina is a Ukranian single mother who has moved to America from Paris after falling in love with an American, Neil. Father Quintana is a Hispanic Catholic priest who moved to the area to minister. Both have been compelled to move their by love, but both now find themself feeling increasingly isolated and distant from that love. The picture contrasts Marina’s relationship difficulties with Quintana’s crisis of faith.
For this exploration of love in its different forms, Malick is more interested in evoking than describing. Instead of getting scenes, we simply glimpse moments. Instead of having passages of dialogue, we capture a sentence here or there. The prominence of the musical score over dialogue means the film can feel almost like a silent movie.
Like The Tree of Life, To the Wonder is a visual and aural experience with an ethereal quality. The cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, who has worked twice before with Malick, is breathtaking. Whether in the streets of Paris, the plains of Oklahoma or the humble homes of Bartlesville, Lubezki and Malick give us beautiful, emotive images. However unlike its predecessor, To the Wonder doesn’t have the substance to support its style. The combination of these stunning images, an expressive score, and a narration of philosophical whisperings in French and Spanish has led more than one critic to liken the film to a high end perfume commercial.
An impressive principal cast including Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem suggests that the chance to work with Malick is obviously a draw card for actors. But don’t come expecting to see movie stars because Malick’s camera doesn’t treat them that way. Case in point is Ben Affleck, who despite being a big name star, constantly finds himself on the periphery of the frame, often with his head cut out of the picture. In the film’s first passages in Paris Affleck hardly says a word. We assume this is because his character doesn’t speak French, but then when the film migrates to America we still don’t hear from him.
To the Wonder has an impassioned spirituality. You can’t help but feel that there is an autobiographical element to Father Quintana’s longing to again experience the presence of Christ in the world around him. Unfortunately though, the film lacks clarity, with the vagueness of its events, characters and themes more likely to leave you scratching your head than deep in philosophical reflection.
Rating – ★★
Review by Duncan McLean