John Coverdale knew St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei who is portrayed in the new Roland Joffe film There Be Dragons.
Coverdale, a numerary (celibate member) of Opus Dei who teaches law at Seton Hall University, worked in the main office of Opus Dei in Rome from 1960-1968.
He has taught history at Princeton and Northwestern and is the author of Uncommon Faith: The Early Years of Opus Dei and several works on Spain’s history. There Be Dragons is set during the Spanish Civil War.
So he is in a good position to speak about the accuracy of the film’s portrayal of the founder of Opus Dei. Though it’s a fictional story, many of the details in the film, including the basic outline of St. Josemaria’s early life, are true to life.
Were you involved in the production of There Be Dragons at all?
No, but very late in the game, when they were doing the final tweaks, someone called me and asked for some kind of historical clarifications about the Spanish Civil War and so on. So, one phone call, and I don’t know if anything I said had any influence on the final cut or not.
Well, what did you think of the film?
I thought it was very interesting. I thought it was quite accurate about St. Josemaria. Of course, they had to change things around to make them fit into their story line, but I think that just about everything they say about him, or that happens to him in the film, has a pretty clear reference in his own life, in the history of what actually happened. It’s probably unusually accurate for a film that is inspired in real events but is not a documentary.
Was there a Manolo Torres in his life?
Not that I know of.
Nothing that comes close?
Not that I’m aware of. In the film, he is depicted as having a fistfight with Manolo at the seminary. Now, he did have a fistfight with someone at the seminary, but it was not someone he had grown up with. It was actually a man who was quite a few years older than he was. That’s kind of what I was saying: Yes, it has a historic basis; yes, he did get into a fistfight with somebody at the seminary. But no, it wasn’t Manolo, and it wasn’t someone he grew up with.
You worked for St. Josemaria in Rome.
Yes, I was there for a total of about eight years. I worked in the office there for about seven of those eight years.
What did you do?
I worked in a kind of public relations office for Opus Dei. We mostly prepared written material explaining Opus Dei and its spirit and so on. We really didn’t do much — or hardly any — direct contact with journalists or something like that. It was more of preparing background material.
So you must have gotten to know the founder pretty well.
I did; it was wonderful. I’d say we saw him not every day, but almost every day; sometimes very briefly; sometimes at considerable length. So yes, it was a marvelous opportunity to get to know him — certainly one of the great blessings of my life.
During that time, did you ever hear him speak about any of the events covered by There Be Dragons?
Occasionally he would talk about the founding of Opus Dei, which occurs there, in quite fictionalized form. But there, he was extremely reticent. He hardly ever said anything other than: “On the second of October 1928, I saw Opus Dei.” Why that? I think two reasons. One was humility, that this was a pretty clear supernatural intervention of God in his life, and he didn’t want to kind of single himself out as the recipient of those kinds of special graces. And I think even more important, the whole point of Opus Dei and the whole spirit of Opus Dei is that people can and should sanctify themselves in their ordinary life, doing normal things, being a housewife or a bricklayer or a nurse or a law professor, as I am, or whatever, and that sanctity isn’t about unusual graces or unusual mystical phenomena.
How well did the film portray the essence of what St. Josemaria started: his vision for Opus Dei?
I don’t think it makes much of an effort to do that. It presents a fictionalized version of St. Josemaria’s foundational vision, but I think it would be very hard to understand if you didn’t already know something about Opus Dei. Opus Dei really doesn’t figure prominently at all in the film. The name is mentioned perhaps a couple of times, and St. Josemaria is seen with a group of young men who are the first members of Opus Dei, but that’s about it. But I don’t think from the film you get much of an idea of Opus Dei as an organization, nor do I think the director was trying to portray it as an organization or what it is about. You can get some idea of aspects of it spirit, for instance the idea of sanctifying ordinary, everyday things. And you certainly get a sense of his message of love and forgiveness. But what Opus Dei is as an organization or any systematic presentation of his message is not what the director is trying to do.
There’s a scene where Josemaria’s mother asks him, “Well, what are you going to call your group?” And he says, “We just call it ‘God’s work.’” And she says, “It would sound better in Latin,” which, of course, is opus Dei. Is that accurate?
No. At first, he didn’t have a name and didn’t want one. He said “No, I don’t want to draw attention to a group, I just want people trying to sanctify themselves in the world and trying to spread the message of sanctity.” But he soon began to realize that it had to have a name. And one day when he was speaking to his confessor, not his mother, his confessor asked him, “How is that opus Dei of yours going?” And he said to himself — I don’t know if it was right on the spot or sometime later — that’s it. That’s the name.”
So that’s one point in his life where the film did take some poetic license.
Well, it takes a fair amount of poetic license with these things. What I was trying to say was: not that it’s a historically accurate depiction, but that you see the event like that and say, Well, okay, that’s not quite the way it happened. … But, I mean, he might, later on when his mother asked him what the name was, responded: “Opus Dei.”
But most of the things are transformed in one way or another to fit into the narrative that he’s constructing, which isn’t primarily about St. Josemaria; it’s primarily about this fictional character.
What did you think of some of the criticism the film received?
The ones I read, I didn’t notice anything much about Opus Dei. It focused more on things like cinematography or how the script was put together or that kind of thing. And I’m no authority on movies at all; I don’t watch more than half a dozen movies a year.
I think they’re correct that it’s not a masterpiece, the way The Mission was. But I think it’s a good film.
Were there any theological points made in the film with which you would disagree? Did you think the film could be misleading on any area of Catholic teaching?
No, especially for someone who describes himself as a “wobbly agnostic,” I think it was remarkably accurate.
In general, is this a movie that could bring people closer to God?
I think so, yes, particularly this message of forgiveness and dealing in a spiritual or supernatural way with challenges that in one form or another we all face. I think it’s also a very positive depiction of a Catholic priest, which, God knows, is a necessary enough thing at this point. This particular priest happens to be the founder of Opus Dei and happens to be a saint, but he is, above all, a priest who is depicted in a very sympathetic light. I’ve heard that in at least one or two dioceses the vocations director has said, “I want to get lots of people to see this film.”
What would you say is the general feeling about the film among your fellow members of Opus Dei? Are they happy about it?
Yes, I think most people are happy. Most people feel it does present a pretty accurate and sympathetic picture of our founder, which, of course, we always welcome. Happy to have more people learn about him and perhaps acquire a devotion to him. And, as I said, it spreads a very good message about forgiveness and overcoming difficulties with love rather than hatred. And finally, the fact that it does do a service to the Church: presenting a priest in a very favorable and attractive light is something we’re very pleased with.
Is there a sense that it will engender a lot of interest in Opus Dei?
Well, we certainly hope so. Only time will tell about that. I’ve only watched it once. I didn’t think Opus Dei as a group really came across at all, either for good or for bad. You see a group of young men surrounding St. Josemaria, and you see them in various activities of various sorts. But I don’t think anyone watching the film will say, Gee that group seems really interesting; I’d like to get in touch with them. They might say, Gee, that priest seems very attractive. I wonder if I could learn more about him and about his life, and if they did that, of course, they would immediately run into Opus Dei. But it’s not a film about Opus Dei at all, really.
But I suspect it will introduce a lot of people who have a stereotype about Catholicism to a spirituality they may not have heard of — finding sanctity through one’s everyday life and work.
I think that’s probably true, and we’re certainly hoping and praying that that does prove to be true.
And they might be surprised to find out that Catholics can approach life in this way and pursue holiness in this way.
Sure. And it premiered in Spain three or four weeks ago, and apparently there have been quite a few stories there of people who have returned to the Church or said, Gee, maybe I’d better reconsider where I stand, or people who have been reconciled with, say, relatives they were quarreling with.
What about the film’s depiction of the Spanish Civil War?
I think it’s fine; it’s fairly neutral. I don’t think you’d get any sophisticated picture of what the war was about. There are a lot of battle scenes and all, but the kind of motivation of the war — you would get an idea that there was a strong anti-clerical element in the war, and of attacks on the Church. You wouldn’t understand why, but you would see that happening.
And you would understand that there was one side that was supported by the fascists and another side where there were a lot of communists. Both of the sides were really much more complicated than that. The Franco side wasn’t, I think, technically speaking, fascist, although it was supported by the fascist powers; and on the Republican side, there were definitely communists, but there were also socialists and anarchists and people who were neither but who were Republican.
So, it’s a complicated reality, and the film doesn’t get into those details. It probably couldn’t. But I think that what you see is pretty accurate.
John Burger is the Register’s news editor.