First, let me say what There Be Dragons is not. It is not a biopic of Saint Josemaria Escriva. It is not a propaganda piece for Opus Dei (though it was largely funded by members of that organization). It is not one of those low-budget Catholic films starring devout Catholic actors with mediocre acting skills and featuring decidedly second-rate production values. Rather, There Be Dragons has the feel of a big-budget Hollywood movie. It boasts an Academy Award-nominated director, Roland Joffe (The Mission, The Killing Fields), up-and-coming “mainstream” actors Charlie Cox (Stardust, Stone of Destiny) and Wes Bentley (American Beauty, The Four Feathers) in starring roles, veteran English stage and film actor Derek Jacobi (Gladiator, The King’s Speech) in a bit part, and even a Bond girl (Olga Kurylenko, Quantum of Solace) in a supporting role. The acting is excellent across the board. In addition, sets, costumes, and props are lavish and wonderful.
“Inspired by true events,” the film tells the stories of Escriva (Cox) and a fictional friend, Manolo Torres (Bentley), whose lives take divergent paths during the Spanish Civil War. Both characters face the metaphorical “dragons” of life (the film’s title comes from the use on ancient maps of the phrase “Hic sunt Dracones” to designate unexplored areas of the globe), but each responds to personal tragedy in a different way. While still a boy, Escriva’s baby sister dies, and the young Josemaria becomes angry at God for this apparent act of unfeeling injustice. But thanks to the unwavering faith of his parents, Josemaria chooses to love God again, and love becomes the touchstone of his life. In contrast, when Manolo’s father suffers a fatal stroke during a strike by union workers at his factory, Manolo allows anger to become the motivator of his actions. Seeking revenge against the communists who inspired the labor unrest, Manolo becomes a spy for the fascist side in the Spanish Civil War. Anger leads to revenge, revenge to violence, and violence to regret.
Much of the film is told in flashbacks by the aged Manolo, whose son Roberto (Dougray Scott) has been enlisted to write a book about Escriva soon after the priest’s death in 1975. Roberto soon learns that his father was in the seminary with Escriva, but when he approaches his father—from whom he has been estranged for years due to the elder man’s coldness—Manolo initially rebuffs him. Roberto persists, however, and soon Manolo opens up to his son. “I went searching for a saint but found my father,” Roberto says in voiceover at the film’s opening. And it is the dark secrets of his father’s past that are the main focus of the film.
This is a risky move on the part of Joffe and the producers, for those expecting a full-blown biography of Escriva may be disappointed by the story’s center of gravity shifting to a fictional character. This is not to say that Escriva’s character is neglected, though the movie ends when both Escriva and Opus Dei are still young. Cox delivers a convincing and indeed powerful portrayal of this modern saint, who is depicted as thoroughly human and flawed, yet faithful and brave. Indeed, Dragons’ Escriva is a manly and heroic character—defending the Holy Eucharist from desecration by communist hoodlums, resisting carnal temptation when propositioned by a beautiful woman, and engaging in self-flagellation in order to make reparations for his sins and those of his friends.
Indeed, the film is filled with beautiful moments that will delight faithful Catholics—Escriva’s explanation of the simple philosophy of Opus Dei, his consolation of a dying old Jewish man, his refusal to question his belief in the power of love in the face of great evil and violence. Director Joffe, a self-described agnostic, is also not afraid to depict several supernatural moments in the film. The movie will touch not only Catholics, however, but all people of faith—and those like Joffe of no faith—in its exploration of the human themes of love, regret, forgiveness, and redemption and in its shattering conclusion. Highly recommend to all.