Tuesday, June 28, 2011

“There Be Dragons,” But Not in this Movie

Part EWTN-style biopic (all sweetness and smiles) and part Hollywood love triangle (passion! jealousy! betrayal!), “There Be Dragons” was a colossal flop at the box office. The first half of that sentence effectively explains the second half. What in the name of St. Josémaria Escrivá was Roland Joffe thinking? The director of “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission” obviously has movie-making chops, but he went all soft in the head with this production, which earned $1 million box-office in its first four weeks of international release, against a production budget of $36 million. Those numbers will not encourage another Hollywood producer to take a chance on a “Catholic movie” anytime soon.

One of the two main characters is Josémaria Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei. If Joffe’s intent was to create a pro–Opus Dei film (and the movie is, if anything, refreshingly pro–Church), why in the name of all that’s holy did Joffe make Escrivá such a goody two-shoes, without even a hint of a dark side? (True, he flagellates himself after seeing his mentor, a priest, assassinated in the street, but that single icky act reveals little about his humanity.) I felt my own cynical hackles rising within ten minutes of being introduced to this sweet boy in white who grows up to become a sweet man in black. I could only imagine what a non-Christian or anti-Catholic would feel upon seeing “There Be Dragons.” But then most people never did see it.

The other main character is Escrivá’s possibly fictional childhood friend, who becomes a Red Brigades revolutionary in the Spanish Civil War; falls in love with a fellow revolutionary; sees her fall in love with a leader of their cell; and then kills her after the revolutionary leader commits suicide and she gives birth to their child, which the friend of José Maria then raises, if you’re even following this. If Joffe wanted to create a big-money Tinseltown potboiler, why the hell did he mix the controversial Opus Dei into his plotting?

In the end viewers are left with a movie that’s neither this nor that.

Members of our CL School of Community saw the film together last night at the local cinema, and the only saving grace for me was hearing the judgments of my friends. While I seem to have taken a cynical film-reviewer stance in front of “There Be Dragons,” Julie and Elizabeth approached the film with open eyes and heart, and both reported being moved by the character of St. Josémaria (canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002). Both of my friends said that they want to learn much more about Opus Dei and its founder since seeing the film. If so, then “There Be Dragons” accomplished something.


  1. FWIW, Ebert had favorable remarks, though the clips presented with his review make it appear that the movie is lacking in subtlety.

  2. I haven't seen the film but run a film series for my church. I specifically avoid showing "Christian" films but show instead mainstream Hollywood films that have a moral dimension. For example, the Clint Eastwood film Gran Torino has a great deal to say about forgiveness and redemption, but it comes through in a way that is not preachy or obvious. Great art always achieves great impact by entering the heart without our knowing it. As soon as you become aware of the "message", the impact is lost.

  3. Well said, Michael. Your comment helps me to understand my own reaction to this and other films.

  4. Guess I'll wait for the dvd.

  5. Actually, I liked that Escriva was portrayed as a kind and forgiving (even of his atrocious enemies)priest. I hope that part of the movie was actually true! The downfall of the movie was Joffee's ambition. He should have focused on either a story about Escriva, the Spanish Civil War, or the love story; not all three. Most of us in CL would have preferred learning about Escriva, and what he did (or did not do - if he truly believed that saints were created by ordinary deeds and people)to earn sainthood. The movie lacked character development and a substantial plot. Like Webster, I disliked that at movie's end, all story lines were wrapped up in a pretty bow thus making the movie more suitable for the Hallmark channel rather than the Sundance Festival. (But like Julie and Elizabeth, I am intrigued and want to learn more about Jose-Maria Escriva.) Vange


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