There Be Dragons (PG-13, Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Unfortunately for viewers, the film’s disparate threads fail to coalesce into a successful dramatic whole.

 

 

In the 1980s, English director Roland Joffé received two Oscar nominations for Best Director for two complex, mesmerizing historical dramas: The Killing Fields, about one man’s struggle to escape the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia; and The Mission, about Catholic missionaries and Portuguese conquistadors and the South American Indians they are trying to convert to Catholicism and convert into slaves, respectively. Then, following two relatively unsuccessful historical dramas along the same lines, he plunged off a creative cliff into a Hollywood no man’s land that included directing parts of the disastrous Super Mario Bros. movie, a movie about the Russian pop group t.A.T.u., and a thriller whose advertising campaign was singled out for its gleeful misogyny. Fortunately for him, his latest effort, There Be Dragons, is much closer to the successful films of his lauded heyday. Unfortunately for viewers, the film’s disparate threads fail to coalesce into a successful dramatic whole.

There Be Dragons tells the story of one of the 20th century’s most remarkable priests, Fr. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer. Josemaría founded a movement called Opus Dei (in English “work of God”) that emphasized ways for the everyday activities of laypeople to lead them closer to God. Josemaría survived the bloody Spanish Civil War—in which the Catholic Church was a frontline participant—and would mold Opus Dei into a worldwide movement, eventually being canonized a Catholic saint in 2002. The film concentrates on the young Josemaría’s early life, and there is more than enough material for a biopic with his story alone—the early death of several siblings, his decision to become a priest, his inspiration for Opus Dei, the Spanish Civil War, his movement’s successful anticipation of the growing important of the laity in the Catholic Church, Opus Dei’s detractors and its occasionally problematic place in the modern church, etc. Unfortunately, Joffé is not content to simply tell this story.

The viewer is also subjected to the tale of a fictionalized childhood friend and fellow seminarian, Manolo. The son of a wealthy family, he abandons the seminary (and probably God) and throws himself into the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Nationalists (a military coup led by Francisco Franco’s fascists, supported by Hitler and Mussolini) against the Republicans (the elected socialist government of Spain supported by the Soviet Union and pro-democracy prominents like George Orwell). While serving as a spy in the Republican army, Manolo falls in love with a revolutionary who only has eyes for a rival. Manolo murders and backstabs his way across the war. There is also the parallel story of 1980s Manolo, who is about to die and is contemplating patching up relations with his journalist son, who happens to be writing a book on Fr. Josemaría Escrivá.

In theory, this could have produced a profound film; Manolo, consumed by anger and determined to be a big man like his father, versus Josemaría, who mastered his own youthful anger and found significance and holiness in even the smallest human action. The film could have examined the outcomes of the Spanish Civil War or the tremendous changes in the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, there is too much for the film’s already overstuffed two-hour running time. Not enough time is spent developing certain aspects of the film (the love story, the father-son dynamic, the particulars of the war, the particulars of Opus Dei) and too much time is spent on others (the journalist son and his wife, some of Josemaría’s happy domestic life, civil war action sequences that appear without context). While there are some very affecting scenes— the burial of young Josemaría’s infant sister, and his witnessing of a monk delivering supplies to the needy, barefoot in the snow—unfortunately, the parts are considerably greater than the whole.

The filmmakers also do not do themselves any favors in their casting or directing choices. It is good to see Wes Bentley working again; the thuggishness he brings to Manolo plays well off the bookish and sensitive Charlie Cox as Josemaría. However, his golem-like intensity does him no favors in either his romantic or father-son subplots. His Spanish accent (he is the narrator for much of the film) and the old-age makeup for the scenes set the 1980s also leave much to be desired.

Joffé does not escape blame as he digs into his bag of directing tricks at cross-purposes. His use of elaborate framing and some dreamlike sequences is offputting; sometimes the action truly is a dream, sometimes it is not. For example, the burial sequence of Josemaría’s infant sister at the beginning of the film has a dreamlike quality, but that really happened. However, during a key sequence where Josemaría envisions Opus Dei—that simple everyday tasks can be the work of God—he sees Jesus toiling at his carpenter’s bench in the basement of Josemaría’s father’s candy factory. Did Josemaría really see an apparition of Jesus Christ in the basement of his father’s business, or did he come to the realization that God can be behind and be served by simple, honest work? By using the same dreamlike setting and tricks, Joffé leaves the viewer guessing.

It is good to see a director as talented as Roland Joffé return to the land of the living. The story at the film’s heart is an important and affecting one. However, too many missteps lead the filmgoer to take pass on There Be Dragons. | Joe Hodes

 

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