There Be Dragons

A lightning rod for conspiracy theorists of all stripes, the controversial Catholic organization Opus Dei is associated in the minds of most Americans (i.e., those familiar with The Da Vinci Code) with a murderous, self-flagellating albino monk. For millions of the faithful, however, the group and its founder Josemaría Escrivá, dubbed “the saint of the ordinary” by John Paul II, act as an inspiration for bringing holiness into daily life. As big-screen entertainment goes, this seems a marginally less compelling premise than homicidal monks—pigmented or not. Luckily, Roland Joffé has found a way to sex up their side of the story, plotting the early life of Escrivá and the founding of Opus Dei against the chaotic backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Although it’s dressed up in the garb of an immersive David Lean–style historical epic, no amount of tastefully overwrought production design or soaring orchestration can distract from the fact that There Be Dragons is a work of bald-faced calculation. Co-produced by two members of Opus Dei, the film comes off less as a spiritual journey than a feature-length exercise in rebranding, offering Escrivá as the wise, tolerant face of a theologically and politically vague movement.

It’s easy to see why Joffé signed on. After an early career tackling certifiable Important Subjects with The Killing Fields and The Mission, he had within a decade descended from the Khmer Rouge to King Koopa, producing and allegedly directing part of a live-action adaptation of Super Mario Bros. There Be Dragons, with its combination of spiritual struggle and bloody civil war, essentially telescopes the concerns of his two early successes, offering the chance to paint big themes against a battle-scarred background.

While the film dishes out the requisite wartime action—urban warfare on barricade-lined streets, a ragtag guerrilla march through the country—it all seems a bit cursory, with each flat-footed set piece landing with minimal impact. Joffé’s primary concerns are not visual, and not even dramatic, really. He’s an idea man, interested above all in sketching out schematic oppositions—forgiveness vs. resentfulness, spiritual vs. secular life—in the conviction that these are the source of both narrative interest and moral edification. It’s this Manichean impulse that animates Joffé’s screenplay, along with an unabashed willingness to use dialogue as a fast-track delivery system for worn-out platitudes. Suffice it to say, the grafted-on framing narrative culminates with the following nugget of insight: “When you forgive, you set somebody free—yourself.”

More interesting is the way that the script’s rigid construction shifts things from nail-on-the-head didacticism into slippery evasion. Intent on emphasizing the polarity between religious vocation and worldly power, the film posits an Opus Dei that completely transcends ideology, offering a rare refuge of neutrality threatened by the bitter sectarian passions of the civil war—more than a little disingenuous given the much debated question of the organization’s perhaps overly warm relationship to fascism. Worse still, this not only diffuses the issue of Opus Dei’s political affiliations, it’s also a refusal to engage with the ways in which spiritual and temporal goals are inevitably entangled. 

Since it’s imperative that Escrivá remain free from the taint of politics, Joffé gives him a fictionalized childhood friend whose life follows a more worldly path. Manolo, played as an adult by Wes Bentley, is less a character than a blunt dramatic device, the resentful, agnostic antithesis to Escrivá’s all-embracing Christian love. You wouldn’t think that you’d have to strain to illustrate the differences between a revered saint and an ordinary man caught up in bitter partisan strife, but the film pulls out all the stops: a child of privilege, Manolo commits murder, becomes a fascist spy, betrays the woman he loves, and is an awful father to boot. 

The acting throughout is as nuanced as the writing, but it’s Bentley’s portrayal of this miserable bastard of a man that is the most insistently one-note. With a range of emotional expression extending from ill-tempered glower to contemptuous scowl, his whole performance feels like a dyspeptic variation on the Kuleshov effect—you wait for the reverse shot to see if his grimace signifies long-simmering jealousy, unchecked lust, or just a mild distaste for the unwashed proles he’s forced to associate with. And don’t worry, if you’re still stumped, the liberally applied voiceover will likely spell it out for you. 

For all its glaring flaws, There Be Dragons is not uniformly objectionable. Its cardinal virtue, if not quite its saving grace, is Charlie Cox’s star turn as the cherubic saint-in-the-making. In a film that is padded out with thudding contrivances, he embodies Escrivá with a refreshing directness and humility that seems to exist on a different plane from everything that surrounds him. Genuinely charismatic, he’s also a bit distant, reacting to events but never really touched by them. It’s hagiography, certainly, but rather affecting in its steadfast simplicity—if only Joffé didn’t try to pass it off as history.

There Be Dragons now playing nationwide.