Director of the Oscar-winning The Killing Fields, The Mission, and City of Joy, Roland Joffe recently wrapped up filming There Be Dragons, a film about the early life of St. Josemaría Escriva. The film is scheduled to open early next year and is currently having pre-release screenings around the country. Joffe spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake from Australia, where he is on the set of his next film, Singularity.
Tell me what you’re doing in Australia.
We’re setting up another story — Singularity — which takes place in India in 1770 and America in 2020.
You attended Jewish boarding schools growing up. Did you grow up with any predominant faith background?
I grew up with all faiths, including political. My large family was political, Jewish, communist, Christian — they represented every viewpoint. Faith was important, but it was a question of which one. My immediate family embraced everything that could be embraced.
You’ve described yourself as a “wobbly agnostic.” Yet, many of your films deal with some aspect of faith. What is the attraction for you?
That’s a very powerful question. I probably couldn’t answer it fully. Attractions are attractions. They’re a mystery. One cannot fully answer what the mystery is.
I think that the term “faith” is badly misused. It’s become shorthand for “not thinking.” I don’t think that’s what faith is.
It seems to me that faith is an ongoing process of discovery that requires an inordinate amount of thinking; that involves profound questions, especially about what life means; it comes and goes; and it has an important rational component.
My generation was a product of the growth of liberal humanism which was going through some strange contortions. It became dismissive of anything that wasn’t scientifically explainable and headed toward a kind of scientism, which is really only a method, not a meaning. That’s reductive. It seems to me that faith is a much braver question — that maybe there is something bigger than we are that we can’t understand — and that trying to understand it is where our humanity lies. A fully materialistic explanation of life leads to a rationality which really might be irrationality. It’s not honest. Irrationality is at least honest about the many forces that make up human beings.
It’s ironic to me that an agnostic has worked on a film about a Catholic saint. What inspired you?
When I decided I would do the movie, I wondered what Josemaría Escriva might say. I think he would be delighted. He had an all-embracing view of human beings. If certain of our values are lining up, how wonderful that is, and what a rich world God’s is.
I decided to write about Josemaría from an objective point of view and accept his faith at face value. That’s quite different from the conventional approach, which is to ask, “What were his failings?” He had many of them, but they weren’t major.
Here’s a man who, in a time of civil strife, civil war — when God appeared to be silent — was an example of someone going through a spiritual crisis who never lost the sense that each human being is a saint, that every human being is deserving of love, and he lived that. That is saintliness. Those subjects are worthy of honest storytelling.
Given that you’re attracted to the story of a saint, do you have an attraction to Christianity?
It seems to me that one of the great tenets of Christianity is free will. This is an extraordinarily powerful tool for examining human life. Life itself is the question. The living of life is an active response to what it means. It cannot be expressed; it can only be lived. Suffering and pain and the full complexity of life and what we feel makes up our understanding about what life is. One psychiatrist said that our emotions are the way we incarnate what is valuable to us. Free will is important because it’s the way we respond and the feelings we have. Josemaría expressed this in profound and simple ways. In making the film, I imagined him asking, “Where was God during the Spanish Civil War?” His answer, both then and now, is that he’s found in many places we don’t expect. He’s found in the minutiae of everyday life and in other people.
In your films, you seem more interested in exploring religious questions rather than answers. What is the primary question in There Be Dragons?
There are constant themes that run through my movies that have to do with how human beings express themselves. The questions have been existential questions like: What does it mean to say we are human? What does it mean to say we are alive? What would we do in that last moment before we pass away on our deathbed? What would we like to have achieved? What would make us feel that everything was worthwhile? I think my work has always focused on those fundamental questions.
This movie was fueled by a feeling that it is not enough to look at the world in a purely existential way. We can’t just say we are some kind of “wet machine.” Life is too complicated, too rich and too patent for that to be a satisfactory answer, and I think Josemaría agreed with that view.
This movie explores how these existential questions relate to our relationships, our societal roles and our faith. I like asking these questions because I do not know the answers, but I am always open to learning more and delving into conversations about life and history that explore these questions more deeply.
Has working on this film affected your own beliefs in any way?
I probably won’t know for a few years how the film will impact me. I think something profound takes a while to reveal itself. Making this film made me think a lot about how narrow some of my views were, because I neglected to really question why I held them. In general, I have no problem with agnosticism. I do sometimes challenge my own agnosticism, because I realize that, in some senses, I came to many of those views because I was a bit lazy. Because many of my beliefs were just things I borrowed — ideas I liked to think about or ideas that made life more comfortable.
But I couldn’t get away with that for this movie. In fact, before I started on this film, I wrote a little note to myself. It was something like: “Dear Roland, please remember everything you’ve thought up till now was a product of lazy thinking.” I literally reminded myself of that.
Making this film has made me question many, many things. It’s made me question, in particular, the relationship of things. I was very, very struck by the number of priests who are extremely good scientists and very good physicists. And by the number of physicists who’ve made very good priests. I used to think that faith and science were at odds with one another.
I would ask how these priests, who know infinitely more about science than I do, could have the humbleness to accept that science does not give them the final answers. Yet they see that science is crucial and a wonderful gift to understanding what the answers are. It’s very compelling to see these men on a journey that says, in all humility, there is nothing in science that rules out the existence of God. Then, perhaps, I can quietly follow in their footsteps and let them enlighten me.
I decided to lay aside my simple answers and just live with the questions. That was wonderfully compelling and made me feel very, very close to a process of living I don’t think I’ve experienced before.
What do you hope viewers will take away from There Be Dragons?
I have tried to make the struggles of the characters in the film available to everybody. I see this as an extremely emotional story about love, redemption, parenting, loving and receiving love, loving and not receiving love, pain, guilt, suffering and death. It’s about those glorious things that human beings share. It’s also about the most glorious thing of all: that all of our lives have meaning.
I created these characters so the viewers could be part of a conversation. I wanted to create an atmosphere of conversation in exactly the same way as you would have with someone you really liked. One where you could listen to their story, and actively say, “Yeah, I agree with that.” Or, “I never thought of that!” Or, “Ahh, that’s a difficult point.” I hope to invoke all sorts of responses.
The film acknowledges very human struggles and how different people relate to them. I hope the film sparks an interest in and conversation about where the viewers find and experience faith in their own lives. If they do that, I will have honored the most important thing that Josemaría gave us — that spirituality can be experienced in everyday living.
Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.