Roland Joffé, director of The Mission and There Be Dragons, calls himself an agnostic, but he seems to be a remarkably God-haunted one.
At a recent press event in Spain, the British writer-director reflected on what drew him to There Be Dragons — a film set during the Spanish Civil War that has predictably elicited media controversy for its positive treatment of St. Josemaria Escrivá, played by Charlie Cox, and Opus Dei, the personal prelature he founded. There Be Dragons recently opened in Spain; the film comes to the United States in May.
“I have no idea whether there’s a God or not, and it seemed to be a fascinating thing to think about,” Joffé explained to a roomful of sometimes skeptical journalists at Madrid’s Villa Magna Hotel. “I’m not a very spiritual person, unfortunately, being a Brit. We tend to go for humor over religion.”
The self-fulfilling humor of the self-deprecating line notwithstanding, the filmmaker easily uses the language of sainthood, spirituality and grace. His British penchant for humor resurfaced as he recounted the reactions of some of his friends to the news that he was doing a film dealing with Opus Dei. “Oh my God, that’s a fascist organization!” was one horrified response he related. “I mean, they slaughtered hundreds of people!”
Joffé’s deadpan rejoinder — “They have? Really? How do you know that?” — was followed by a litany of similarly preposterous charges: that Opus Dei “controls” the Church; that “hundreds” of cardinals and “thousands” of bishops are members; that their membership is kept secret, and so on.
Provocatively tweaking dubious members of his audience, Joffé continued, “The fact is: Opus Dei itself doesn’t really exist. I hate to break this to you, but there isn’t really such a thing as Opus Dei — in the sense of some kind of society with an opinion about something.
“I investigated Opus Dei, and I began to find a very important thing: Opus Dei is a group of people who come together to work on their spiritual life, to work on their relationship to God. But Opus Dei does not have a point of view, other than to say that what you believe you must stand up for — and you must take responsibility for your choices.”
“Beyond that, Opus Dei does not tell people what to think,” he said. “And, in some sense, that’s very beautiful. It’s also shocking to a culture that’s used to large political and ideological groups. Here you have a group that shares some things, but not everything. It’s very difficult to understand. We know that when you belong to a party, most of the time, you’re being told to toe the party line, in one way or another. There isn’t an Opus Dei party line.”
“That means that some people will not like the conservative members of Opus Dei that they meet, or they may not like the liberal members of Opus Dei that they meet,” Joffé said. “But I can assure you that all those sorts of opinions do exist inside Opus Dei.”
In a way, it was Josemaria’s very controversiality that made him interesting, Joffé suggested, adding, “I don’t think an uncontroversial saint is a very good idea. I’m not quite sure how you could be an uncontroversial saint, because … if you are a saint, that means you stand for something.”
What did Josemaria stand for? For Joffé, the key to the saint’s principles was found in his times — particularly the political upheaval of the Spanish Civil War, which the director characterized as an era of “mass production of politics.” Josemaria’s resistance to the ideological pressures of his era, Joffé said, was “an act of supreme courage and grace.”
“Each saint is asked a different question by his period in history, and that question becomes the central thing of his life,” the filmmaker asserted. “I was very struck that, at a time when the world was splitting up ideologically, this man fought very hard for the idea of freedom of choice — not only freedom of choice, but the importance of choice — the importance of owning every choice you make in your life. And making your choices in such a way that you feel proud of them.”
Elaborating on the challenges of Josemaria’s time, Joffé cited ideological polarization, conformity and dehumanization of opponents: “Suddenly, and maybe for the first time in human civilization, we were required to be the Model T of your particular ideology. Freedom of choice was not the issue. The question was: Will you be this kind of human being, acting in this kind of way? And one began to see this sort of division occurring in Spain in an extraordinary way — a precedent for what was going to happen in Europe in the following years.
“And in this moment of time, there comes this young man who resists that pressure, who says, among many profound things, ‘Own your own acts, and never allow your decision-making to dehumanize others.’ That was a powerful thing to do at the time. I admired that message about him. I hope I could be that kind of human being.”
Shifting from political suppression of freedom of choice to scientific denial of free will, Joffé asked, “Though science may try to tell us that we are some result of chemicals and electrical impulses and that we have no free will, what should we do? At the very worst, we have ‘free won’t’ — which means we have decisions about doing something besides not to do it. For all our lives, there will be choice, and there is something about us as human beings that is capable of exercising that choice.”
The capacity for choice, Joffé reflected, was also the capacity for saintliness. “When you think about a saint,” he mused, “you’re not really thinking about a sort of continuum. You’re thinking about lots of acts — lots of times when different things could have been chosen, but certain things were.
“So I felt that, with Josemaria’s life, what I was looking at was a series of choices. And if you imagine those like beads on a necklace, you could say that after many choices have been made, this man was a saint. But it was each individual act that counts.”
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com.