Roland Joffe’s There Be Dragons opens with the disclaimer that it was inspired by true events. Already, this is a bad sign. If horror movies have taught me anything, it’s that such claims should be taken as seriously as a piece of junk mail with the words, “Urgent! Open immediately!” written on it. This movie, like many well-intended historical epics, falls victim to the whims of its director; in deciding to dramatize history for the sake of telling “a story about people trying to find meaning about their lives,” Joffe has made a film that’s astonishingly simple-minded, as if he wrote it to satisfy his own needs rather than to appeal to an audience. I’m not saying that there’s anything inherently wrong with this. I am saying, rather sternly, that this material doesn’t lend itself to it. Here’s one movie that deserved to be far more compelling.
It begins in 1982, when a Spanish journalist named Robert (Dougray Scott) struggles to mend his relationship with his dying father, Manolo. Prior to his becoming ill, the two had a contentious relationship and had not spoken in years. As Robert learns the truth about his father’s life, the film shifts back to early twentieth century Spain, where a complicated friendship between Manolo and a fictionalized version of Josemaria Escriva unfolds before and during the Spanish Civil War. The real Escriva was a Roman Catholic priest and is best known as the founder of Opus Dei, an organization that preached the sanctification of an ordinary life. This is opposed to a life of strict regiment and servitude within the walls of a church, which was not open to everyone — least of all women and those who are married. In 2002, twenty-seven years after his death, he was canonized by Pope John Paul II, who considered him “among the great witnesses of Christianity.”
Joffe makes the dread mistake of glossing over Escriva’s complexities, some of which remain controversial to this day. In the film, he’s a one-dimensional caricature — a man so selfless and pure that at times, he seems completely out of touch with reality. As a boy (Juan Cruz Rolla), he was of limited means, although he clearly had the love of his family and the calling to be a priest. As a young man (Charlie Cox), he sees political strife all around him and believes that the best way to protest is not to fight, but merely to love. This leads to the founding of Opus Dei, which is itself reduced to little more than an ideal. Admittedly, it’s an appealing one; peace, charity, and tolerance are always preferable to war, selfishness, and hate. But never once does Joffe address the controversial aspects of Opus Dei, including accusations of elitism, misogyny, extreme right-wing leanings, and secretiveness. Granted, all of these are unproven and generally regarded as myths propagated by opponents. Still, if there’s even a chance of them being true, they deserve to be explored.
And with this, I return to Manolo. As a boy (Felipe Agote), he was raised in a privileged but loveless household. As a young man (Wes Bently), he came to believe that money and power, and not the priesthood, were his higher calling. Someone like Josemaria, a man of the cloth, represents all that has gone wrong with the country. When civil war ravages the country, he enlists in the army, is recruited as a spy for the fascist government, and infiltrates the communist uprising, which descends in gun-toting, speechifying droves. He meets a Hungarian girl named Ildiko (Olga Kurylenko), and becomes obsessed with her, although no clear reason is given for this. Ildiko is really in love with Oriol (Rodrigo Santoro), an extreme left-wing activist who promises her that, if he should fall, he will wait for her on the other side.
Josemaria, meanwhile, is forced to go into hiding, as members of the clergy are being murdered left and right. He can only appear in public in street clothes and with a wedding ring on his finger. He holds makeshift confessions at a local zoo, where those seeking forgiveness are forced to stand or sit next to him and whisper into his ear. He’s then faced with the prospect of leaving the city, which he is against; abandoning the people, he believes, goes against the altruistic principles of Opus Dei. In the throes of his moral crisis, he will encounter a girl in a mental institution (Lily Cole). In her brief scene, she speaks cryptic dialogue, which is obviously meant to challenge Josemaria’s beliefs; she’s not a character, but a plot device.
At this point, I’m forced to ask myself two questions. First, who’s story is really being told? By keeping Josemaria and Manolo apart throughout most of the film, Joffe has essentially made two separate movies, and at no point do they neatly converge. Second, why are both stories told in flashback from only Manolo’s point of view? Geographic and temporal logistics suggest that he could not have possibly witnessed much of Josemaria’s life. Joffe unsuccessfully attempts to alleviate this glaring technicality with the addition of a plot twist, one so melodramatic and implausible that it seems to have been transplanted from the pages of a Victorian gothic novel. From this, I can only conclude that There Be Dragons was not a depiction of history, but rather a personal crusade. In writing the movie, Joffe saw what he wanted to see, and no more.