There Be Dragons (2011) PG-13 for violence and combat sequences, some language and thematic elements. Dir: Roland Joff©
This film opens in theaters on Friday, May 6th. Fandango details here.
There Be Dragons is a film written and directed by Roland Joff© (The Killing Fields, The Mission) where much of the action takes place during the Spanish Civil War. A modern investigative journalist Robert Torres (Dougray Scott) is researching about the famous Catholic saint, Josemaria Escriv¡ (Charlie Cox) who happened to be a childhood friend of his estranged father, Manolo Torres (Wes Bentley) and attended seminary together. When civil war broke out, the communists and fascists were constantly in conflict. Josemaria became a priest while Manolo went on a different path and joined the fascist military. While infiltrating the communist militia, Manola becomes smitten with Ildiko (Olga Kurylenko), a fighter on the other side. During that time, there was also great anti-clericalism in Spain, and Josemaria often found himself in hiding from persecution and death from the military.
While the film is part biopic about the well-known Catholic priest Josemaria Escriv¡, a declared saint and founder of Opus Dei (its presumed “secrecy” was a subject for a conspiracy in Dan Brown’s Di Vinci Code), it actually follows the lives of two characters from different classes who grew up together, Manolo and Josemaria. The characters’ lives diverge from there'”Manolo’s is a life of violence and ambition when he joins the fascist army, while Josemaria is a priest in hiding trying to promote peace in war-torn Spain. Director Joff© uses this device as a way to portray their differences in reactions to war, love, and suffering.
The film starts off a fairly conventional path, particularly the childhood scenes of Josemaria and Manolo. Things do pick up considerably once the characters grow up, however, as they are thrown into violence and dangers of the civil war. I have to admit that I might have enjoyed this film more had it been subtitled. As expected in films where everyone speaks English (while they are from a foreign country), their Spanish accents aren’t always convincing. The dialogue and the overall story is a conventional one (as it often is for most historic epics), but Director Joff© infuses just enough clever moments to keep things interesting, whether through uses of mirror imagery, camera tricks, and visuals.
The war scenes are well staged and detailed, and are surprisingly tense. Charlie Cox holds his own as Josemaria, even if his character seems rather flawless compared to Wes Bentley’s Manolo, who is a much rougher character. Olga Kurylenko, perhaps best known for the James Bond flick, Quantum of Solace, is engaging here as Ildiko, and quite beautiful even with her short, curly hair. Although Manolo pursues Ildiko, she is in love with the militant leader Oriol (Rodrigo Santoro), completing the love triangle.
Director Joff© certainly has a great eye for the visual. The exotic, colorful locales of Madrid are impressively grand, making good use of its $35 million budget. There’s a memorably tense scene where Josemaria is escaping through a door in the foreground while a huge army is seen breaking into the building and scattering out in the background that is simple yet thrilling. There are also some quiet, slower moments in the film that do not always work, but are still visually interesting nevertheless.
I can’t help but feel that the film only touched on Josemaria’s life. I suppose something more would have taken a documentary. It’s been a while since I’ve seen what I would call a traditional epic, and this film takes many cues from other classical epics, including the look, the stories, and the types of characters that feel quite familiar. There are many things going on here–action, romance, betrayal, and an exploration on the theme of forgiveness, which I found the film drove home quite effectively. The film is not without its flaws, but what does stand out is its emotional center and themes that I found refreshing to see in films these days.
My Rating: *** out of ****