Early in Roland Joffé’s There Be Dragons is an episode in which two young boys named Josemaría Escrivá and Manolo Torres sample cacao beans at a chocolate factory owned by Manolo’s wealthy father, while the kindly Jewish manager Honorio (Derek Jacobi) waits eagerly for their impressions. Frowning in disappointment at Manolo’s hapless guess (almond?) and smiling approvingly at Josemaría’s assessment (cinnamon!), Honorio upbraids Manolo, not for guessing wrong, but for “scoffing at what he can’t experience.”
“Love can unleash the divine flavors hidden within,” Honorio explains, adding thoughtfully, “Not everyone has a taste for the divine. … I wonder why that is.”
In that vignette is There Be Dragons in a nutshell (or a cacao bean). Josemaría has been chosen; Manolo has not — and there’s nothing he can do about it.
Joffé, who wrote and directed, sympathizes with Manolo’s plight, which he seems to feel is really his own plight. A self-professed “wobbly agnostic,” the director of The Mission is clearly fascinated by God and the people who know him, but he considers himself to have no taste of the divine — though he is determined not to scoff, like Manolo, at those who experience what he can’t.
Alas, the scene is also typical of the film’s problems. The small-screen triteness and obviousness of the dialogue, for one thing. For another, the problem of Manolo: a fictional character haplessly charged with carrying the dramatic burden of a film he is patently unable to carry, while a far more charismatic and intriguing historical figure stands off to one side, like young David glowing with promise and purpose while King Saul flails impotently, drowning in his own deficiency.
The difference is that where Saul eventually quits the stage, leaving David to assume the spotlight, Manolo staggers to the end of There Be Dragons with the weight of the narrative firmly on his shoulders. Josemaría stays on the sidelines and eventually slips away, almost unaware of the drama not quite intersecting his story.
You wouldn’t guess any of this from the opening shot, a portentous time-freezing tracking shot (if that’s the right term here) of the moment of Josemaría Escrivá’s death in Rome. Pushing through an open window into Escrivá’s office, the camera contemplates a rosary suspended in mid-air, along with sheets of paper and other paraphernalia scattered in the air by their owner’s collapse to the floor.
It’s like an angel’s-eye view of the death of a saint — and it seems to belong to a completely different movie than the one that follows. Nothing in There Be Dragons earns the importance with which that opening shot invests Josemaría’s death or connects with it in any way.
As played by English actor Charlie Cox (Stardust), Josemaría emerges as a likable, dedicated, virtuous young man much loved by his circle of friends, the first generation of Opus Dei. There are a few evocative scenes, such as the impression that a barefoot friar’s tracks in the snow makes on the young Josemaría. Yet despite a line or two about Opus Dei spreading to other countries, there’s little sense of Escrivá himself as a figure of any particular note.
He seems fairly anonymous and uncontroversial: a nimble-minded peacemaker who cuts through political debates by underscoring the valid moral concerns on each side, a tireless servant walking 20 miles a day in tattered shoes, an old-school Hollywood priest braving anticlerical persecutions, boldly hearing public confessions dressed in street clothes. Intriguingly, the film doesn’t shy away from the theme of mortification, depicting a grieving Josemaría lashing himself in reparation for violence in the streets.
Yet these bits and pieces don’t add up to a story. The story — we’re told in the opening scenes, set more or less in the present day — is that of a man “who went looking for a saint ... and found my father instead.” Does that sound like a story that’s more or less interesting than the one about the saint?
In a way, it’s the story of multiple generations of dysfunctional father-son relationships in the Torres family. There’s Manolo’s relationship with his own father, a ruthless industrialist whose lesson to his offspring is: “When push comes to shove, a man has only one obligation: to choose the winning side.” There’s old Manolo’s relationship with his grown son, a Spanish journalist named Robert (Dougray Scott) who reluctantly contacts his old man because Robert happens to be researching a book on Escrivá, whom his father knew as a boy. Then there’s Robert’s reluctance to become a father himself, coming as he does from a long line of bad fathers.
Just how bad a father Manolo was even Robert doesn’t fully understand. It’s in reference to the dark secrets of his own past that Manolo warns his son, “There be dragons” — a reference to the legend marking terra incognita on medieval maps. Yet while Manolo may have been a monster, he was hardly a dragon. Even his father was no more than an ogre. As for Manolo, he is, at most, a troll — a creature of the banality of evil, dull, brutish, insipid. He’s the sort of small sinner that inspired the devil’s lament in C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Proposes a Toast.
During the Spanish Civil War, Manolo joins the communist front and falls for a foxy guerrilla chick named Ildiko (former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko), the kind of party girl whose commitment to the cause is considerable consolation to male comrades facing death. Handsome as Manolo is, the better Ildiko knows him, the more unappealing she finds him. She knows him well enough after about 30 seconds. Ildiko reserves her true affection for the charismatic Republican leader (Rodrigo Santoro), a flamboyant figure who might have made a better foil for Escrivá had the story revolved around the two of them.
Yes, the Spanish Civil War. “We called them Fascists; they called us Communists — really the war was much more complicated than that,” old Manolo reminisces in a line that’s about the film’s only concession to those complications. That and the fact that Manolo is actually a double agent — not out of conviction, something he seems to lack pretty much completely — but simply because he comes from money, which aligns him with the Fascists.
Too often, the film stumbles over nothing. Take the strange verbal foreshadowings of the ensuing action. In one scene, a semi-unsympathetic officer shelters Escrivá from his own forces, muttering something about belonging in a madhouse — immediately after this Josemaría and his fellow fugitives take refuge in, yes, a madhouse. Here, a strangely soulful inmate tells Escrivá, “I think you have mountains to climb” — and a moment later his companions announce that their only hope is to cross over the Pyrenees. By the time we got to a line about the greatest enemies being within, I couldn’t help noting that the speaker was a very pregnant woman about to give birth.
It’s not unwatchable. At times one can see a serious epic trying to emerge from the muddled proceedings. One can even feel the hand of the director of The Mission, a far better historical drama contrasting a heroic priest and a flawed soldier. There are flashes of real religious feeling, particularly from Cox, who projects genuineness and openness. Merely to see St. Josemaría and Opus Dei sympathetically portrayed is refreshing. Alas, it’s precisely these glimpses of the film There Be Dragons might have been that make its failure, and the lost opportunity it represents, all the more disappointing.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content Advisory: Large-scale battle sequences; a number of point-blank shooting deaths; sexual themes and references. Teens and up.