The origins of Opus Dei and the reason for a crappy father-son relationship are examined in an old man’s memories of the Spanish Civil War in There Be Dragons, a strange, fascinating, dreary drama.
Robert (Dougray Scott) is a journalist living in Britain but returning home to Spain in the 1980s to do a story about Father Josemaria Escriva, the priest who started Opus Dei, died in 1975 and became a saint in 2002. (The broad outlines of Escriva’s life as shown in the movie are true, according to OpusDei.us, where they have a whole trove of information available by clicking on pictures of the actual guy as well as stills from this particular movie, which, from the tone of the website, the organization seems pretty happy about.) His father Manolo (Wes Bentley) knew Josemaria; cue the flashback.
Young Manolo and Josemaria (Juan Cruz Rolla) are childhood friends until Josemaria’s family falls on hard times. (The Manolo character is the fictional part of this sort-of biopic.) Manolo’s father is mean and a bit of a snob and makes him stop being friends with Josemaria. Even though he’s rich, Manolo is envious of Josemaria for having a much kinder family.
When they’re older, Manolo (Bentley) and Josemaria (Charlie Cox) end up in seminary school together. It’s not serious for Manolo, who eventually drops out (he later says he joined just to please his mother), but for Josemaria the priesthood is a serious calling. Eventually, he forms a group he comes to call Opus Dei (which means “work of God”) that seeks to serve God in everyday life (I’m sure that’s not the whole ball of wax but that seems like the easiest way of summarizing the visions that Josemaria has that lead him to his life’s work).
Meanwhile, Spain is full of civil discord, with workers — and I suppose eventually communists; a lot of history is being shoved into this story so it’s always clear who’s fighting whom and how much oversimplifying is being done — protesting Manolo’s family’s factories. He blames the protests for his father’s death and decides to side with the military strongmen (Franco and his people) as the country slips into civil war. They recruit him to go undercover and join with one of the International Brigades. Officially, he’s there to send back information about movements of the troops, but in addition he gets in some fun communist partying and some chasing of Ildiko (Olga Kurlenoko), a Hungarian girl there to fight for the people. Sadly, Manolo is incredibly bad at flirting — why won’t you sleep with me, he asks her very hostilely (is that a pick-up line from A Fascist’s Guide to Courting?). And, anyway Ildiko has the hots for Oriol (Rodrigo Santoro), the charismatic and hilariously smoldering leader of their brigade. (Replace “Spanish civil war” with “American university” and “communist insurgency” with “Amnesty International student group” and “tent on a hillside” with “futon in a dorm room” and you have a tonally perfect picture of their relationship.)
So while Manolo is off betraying the woman he loves and the people he works with for a cause he joined out of expediency and spite, Josemaria is attempting to stay one step ahead of, I think, also the communists who see priests as aristocracy-propping-up bourgeoisie and will therefore shoot them in the street. He has to hide in various locations all over Madrid, hold Mass in secret, hear confessions in the park and eventually cross the mountains on foot to get to France.
Interspersed with all this history and complex geopolitical stuff are present-day (1980s) scenes with Robert (remember him from the beginning of the review?) and his wife Leila (Golshifteh Farahani) and this whole subplot about how his relationship with his father has colored his decision to have children with Leila.
Wanna stop for a minute? Take a breath? Get a sip of water?
There Be Dragons is sort of fascinating in that it covers so much history and from such a strange and interesting angle (a priest and a grouchy nationalist) and it explains the beginnings of Opus Dei, an organization I know about mostly in terms of its dislike of Dan Brown books. But the story itself feels very oddly constructed. This guy Robert and his father are, in newspaper terms, the news peg for telling the biography of Josemaria. But it takes a lot of exposition and voiceover narration (and questionable Spanish accents — the movie is in English, the results are varied) to make this framework hold up throughout the movie. And the Josemaria parts of the movie — which are really the most interesting, the Manolo-in-love parts feels like standard hokeyness — are a bit canonizing, as if you expected him to have a warm golden glow around his head at all times. I felt like I was watching one of those saint stories you’d read in catechism. It is a weird structure. When paired with the strange, dimly illuminated look of the film, the result is something very airless and dreary.
There Be Dragons reminded me a bit of the recent Atlas Shrugged in the sense of being a movie pointed selling a specific world view but it does so much more artfully and its actors are infinitely more human-like than the flesh-toned androids that populate the wooden world of Atlas Shrugged. Clearly not a movie for everyone, There Be Dragons is nonetheless a weirdly intriguing example of religious storytelling. C
Rated PG-13 for violence and combat sequences, some language and thematic elements. Written and directed by Roland Joffe, There Be Dragons is two hours long and distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films.