Where Be Story Editor?

Roland Joffé’s new movie, There Be Dragons, is about half a good movie.  What is good is so good that it makes the bad parts doubly frustrating.

Let’s start with the good.  The best part was, happily, Charlie Cox, who plays Opus Dei’s founder, Josemaria Escriva.  Knowing very little about the actual man, I had none of the mental baggage that can trouble a fan (“That’s not how I pictured Mr. Tumnus!”).  The Fr. Josemaria he portrays is a strong, happy, humorous man who is not like other men.  When he commands a room with quiet authority, you feel it.  Despite the drama that surrounds him, his actions are not hammy or melodramatic.  You care about him, and want him to succeed.  When he learns to love everyone he meets, you believe it, and you feel glad that you met him, even if only on screen through an actor.  There are several original and memorable scenes which demonstrate the humanity, holiness, and appeal of the man.

When he’s not on screen, however, the movie is kind of a mess.  The first half hour or so is so cluttered with flashbacks, flash forwards, voice overs, text explanations, and a panoply of cinematic hokeyness, it’s a struggle just to figure out what story is being told.

I know what happened here.  The director knew he had a good story on his hands:  Josemaria Escriva was an amazing guy living in amazing times.  But if you just do a biopic of a Catholic boy who becomes a priest and starts a religious movement, who’s going to watch it?  So they decided to give the story some theatrical heft by telling two stories simultaneously:  Josemaria and his onetime friend, Manolo Torres, who works as a fascist government mole in the trenches with the communist rebels.  But that’s not all:  the dual story is being uncovered by the alienated son of Manolo, who is writing a book about Josemaria, who was friends with Manolo, who is telling his son not to write the book, who is writing it because he’s mad at his father, who is mad at Josemaria because he’s  . . . if this is making any sense, I’m telling it wrong.

Any time Manolo, or his son, or Manolo’s rebel beloved, or the beloved’s lover are on screen, the movie descends into — how do you say?  – silliness.  The characters are paper thin, the dialog is contrived, the voice overs never clarify anything, and the acting stinks.  Again, I think I know what happened:  the director has seen one to many Francis Ford Coppola movies, and was desperate to do the whole “violence and sacraments” juxtaposition thing.  A rosary next to a pistol!  A shattered statue of Mary amid the rubble of war!  An angel amid the lunatics in the asylum!  Or is it a devil!  I know it’s not fair to say, “This is no Godfather,” but what can I say?  Coppola pulled it off; this guy didn’t.  The effect is just squirmfully corny.  You really can’t zoom in on someone’s eyes, and then turn the screen into a swirling, glowing snowglobe to signify that God Is Talking.  You just can’t.  I, the marginally sophisticated viewer, will not stand for it.

At the same time,  so many moments that could have been incredibly powerful cinema are just squandered.  For example: the sniper is on the hillside, squinting through his gunsight at Josemaria and his friends below as they celebrate a makeshift Mass during their perilous escape  in the middle of the Pyrenees.  That could have been a gorgeous scene.  With a little movement by the camera, it could have been the pivotal point — could have carried the weight of the whole movie.  Instead, they just kind of  . . . filmed it:  here’s the sniper, here’s the priest.  Bang!  Next scene.  So frustrating.

At a certain point in the movie, I felt as if I was watching a slide show or an especially melodramatic Powerpoint presentation which covered the plot, more than an actual story.   There was no rhythm to the way it was told, just lots of stopping and starting — which isn’t the same.  There was no deeper meaning to the double stories, just added complexity — which isn’t the same.  There were no deeper themes of fatherhood and faith and forgiveness, just lots of talking about those things — which isn’t the same.  They could have cut thirty minutes and half the characters without losing anything.

Well, now I feel like a jerk.  This was a very sincere movie, and believe it or not, I still recommend it.   It made me interested in Josemaria Escriva — I just wish they had stuck with him more, and skipped all the tacked-on extras of the other plot. I think high school students and younger would probably be pretty impressed by this movie, and it would make a great introduction to the saint for a confirmation class.    I can see someone leaving the theater inspired and encouraged by what happened on the screen.  As I said, the good parts (which occur mostly in the middle third of this two-hour film) are quite good.  The bad parts aren’t unwatchable so much as frustrating:  you keep thinking how much better it could have been.

I guess I’m just not willing to go whole hog and rave about it, just because it presents Catholics in a good light and had a budget of more than $750.  I’m awfully, awfully tired of Catholics being the boogeyman in popular culture, but I’m also awfully, awfully tired of being told that everything that’s wholesome is a MUST SEE, a piece of CINEMATIC BRILLIANCE that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE, and is about FIREMEN.  So, this movie was okay.  I liked it.  But it wasn’t an especially good movie.

It was extremely refreshing to see the Catholic faith represented as something that inspires generosity, courage, manliness, and heroism.  I just wish that someone had been inspired to edit this movie, and heavily.

You can see the official trailer here.

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  • http://deirdremundy.blogspot.com Deirdre Mundy

    Oh, gosh. Not the “Protestant Firemen” movie. As I told my friends at the time, if I want to watch a movie about firemen with marriage problems, I’ll rent Backdraft.

    Actually, for Catholic movies made on a decent budget, I still reccomend “The Spitfire Grill.” And “The Mission”, of course. ;)

  • Sam

    I agree wholeheartedly with this review. The movie was a trainwreck. I kept wanting it to be good, but it just wasn’t. I watched it at a screening last September with a roomfull of about 200 priests, and I dare say most of them felt the same. Plus, there’s the title–totally unrelated to the movie, as far as I could tell. I would not recommend spending the time to watch it.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      I believe the title could be roughly translated as “Don’t Go There” – you know, the whole uncharted waters, delving into the past, are-you-sure-you-want-to-know thing. But yeah, it would have been an appropriate title for a movie about, say, Christopher Columbus learning about his dad — but it did seem forced for this particular movie.

  • http://darwincatholic.blogspot.com MrsDarwin

    Oh, I did so want this movie to be good… But I’m glad for your honest review.

  • J H

    I’ll probably still watch it – but I’m sick of Catholics doing a bad job at things that the rest of the world does AWESOME. We just watched Toy Story 3 – I think the first cartoon that my husband’s seen since he was 8 – and it was really great. Why couldn’t they do something like that?

  • http://oxyparadoxy.blogspot.com The Ranter

    J H – probably because they had a budget of $750 ;-) But otherwise, I agree with you.

    Simcha, thanks for your honest review. Poorly made Catholic movies just make me cringe and I lose all focus on what the story is supposed to be.

  • Anne

    The difference between “a Catholic movie!” and “a movie made by people with a Catholic world view” is vast. The “Catholic movie!” is basically guaranteed to be cheesy. Double cheesy is it’s a “Christian movie!”

    The trailer looks fun. But pretty much any movie can be made to look awesome by the trailer.

  • Devra

    I haven’t seen it yet–we’re fitting it in next weekend with my 5-year-old’s birthday, my 2nd- and 3rd-oldest kids’ play, my husband’s departure for a long and distant business trip, and the preparations for all the above, so who knows if I’ll even be awake enough to form an impression! But the director is an agnostic, the same one who did The Mission and The Killing Fields, not a well-intentioned Christian guy looking for an excuse to do Something Wholesome for the Culture. People who knew St. Josemaria say it’s a great portrayal of him and are promoting it, but as far as I understand, that wasn’t even the director’s main intention. So I urge people to give it a chance, including people who, like me, too, are “awfully, awfully tired of being told that everything that’s wholesome is a MUST SEE, a piece of CINEMATIC BRILLIANCE that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE, and is about FIREMEN.”

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

    Yes, I thought it was a great portrayal of Catholic faith in action (and that’s even more amazing, since it was written by someone without a Catholic agenda). I just wish that had been the whole movie. I do think people might enjoy it – I just wanted to warn them that, as a movie, it’s not great.

  • J H

    I’d also like to give my impression of that protestant fireman movie: a bunch of women got together to figure out how to get men to watch a movie about their feelings. “Hey, I know! We’ll put firemen in it!”

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      Okay, I’ll admit, I didn’t actually see _Fireproof_ — but like Damien says, I don’t have to step in it to know what it is.

      • lickona

        I’ll take issue with JH. FIREPROOF was a marketing masterpiece – a film about fixing a troubled marriage via a practically minded self-help book based on Scripture and a quasi-sacramental understanding of marriage. AND, of course, if your own real-life marriage happened to be in trouble, you could actually buy that self-same book at your local Barnes & Noble.

        On top of that, the film served as an apologia for the notion that marriage was created by God, and as such, must be preserved as God intended: there is an entirely unsubtle plug for Prop 8 style one man-one woman marriage at the end of the film.

        And I’ll be blunt: as clumsily as it may have been handled (this was a PG film, after all), I’ll bet the scene where Kirk Cameron takes a baseball bat to his computer instead of using said computer to look at porn had a lot of men silently cheering him on.

        I don’t think it was a particularly good film. But I get why it was such a huge success.

        Nice review, Ms. Fisher. I actually liked the scene with the angel/devil, in part because of the ambiguity. But I take your point. And yeah, that scene with the sniper could have been huge.

        • J H

          You’re probably right. In fact, I’ve talked to people who said that it helped their marriage – or at least, gave them things to try to help their marriage. I agree it was a marketing masterpiece – I thought the firemen would be cool.

          When I voiced my first objection to the movie – which was that it made it seem like being addicted to porn is a very common problem, I was told that I’m sheltered and it is more prevalent among Christian men (and others too) than I realize. Which may be true.

          I’ll even admit that someone told me he was divorcing his wife, and I suggested that he watch it.

          But for all that – its still filled with cheese. Good cheese, but cheese nonetheless. Oh – and I didn’t like the character of the wife at all.

          • The Jerk

            Crud. I really don’t want to get involved, but you people have to be kidding. The Firepants movie, or whatever it is called, sucks. Hard. How do we know this? Two words: Kirk Cameron.

            We’re Catholics. We invented the Renaissance. We can do better than Left Behind: Franco Babies.

          • lickona

            Who you calling “you people,” Jerk? Nobody here said it was a good movie. I objected to JH’s characterization of it as an attempt by women to get men to watch a movie about feelings by putting firemen in it. Rather, it was an attempt by Protestant men to get other Protestant men to pay attention to the sanctity of marriage.

            Also: boo for deciding that a movie sucks simply because it has a notoriously poor actor as the lead. Hello, The Matrix?

            And I’m not much interested in what Catholics managed to do when being Catholic was akin to being a rational animal, that is, common to many. Because that’s not where we are now. Can we really do better than Left Behind: Franco Babies? If so, then why exactly aren’t we?

          • The Jerk

            I think I see the problem. Listen here, The Matrix is a terrible movie.

            Seriously, if you don’t get that, no wonder Catholics continue to support crap.

          • lickona

            Well, it’s difference of opinion that makes horse races. I think the Matrix is a very fine B movie. Your mileage may vary. It might be fun to get into the movie question further, but we’re already kind of hijacking this thread. My fault, I know. I humbly tap out.

  • bob cratchit

    I was thinking of seeing this with Mrs. Cratchit and our 3 older kids (22, 20 & 17). Hoping maybe it would serve to rekindle their faith a bit. Also, because I’m a big fan of St. Josemaria (The Way), but I figured that he wasn’t the main focus of the movie. (if anyone is interested, You tube has some very excellant clips of St Josemarias talks). The best Catholic movie I’ve scene in a while is Bella. Latter 49, is sort of Catholic but also about firemen and kinda cute.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      With those expectations, I totally think it would be worth seeing. Just don’t expect a light touch.

  • Denise

    Thanks for the honest review! It’s good to know just what to expect going in.

    Despite that, I do think that it helps if Catholics support even the mediocre films that portray Catholic faith or God’s values in a positive way – profits matter when companies are deciding what stories to produce.

    Although, the mediocrity is not really limited to Christian production: think of the ratio of truly great films in general popular culture to the rest of the dross that’s out there. And how much money the dross makes. It’s not just stories with Christian themes that aren’t always told well.

    I also think our expectations somehow seem to be higher for the Christian-themed films. See above; despite the critical importance of having positive-value films, you’ve got to expect a similar proportion of mediocre-to-flops vs. shining stars, right?

    Also, do we think the Devil is completely out of this? He’d not want anything to successfully bring people to the Truth. You have to think of how much meddling he and his are probably doing – given that, I’m impressed that a saint came out looking so fine in this movie, and not the other way around (Manolo becoming the hero, Escriva a maniac, etc.)!

    Nonetheless, back to my original comment: no use fooling ourselves either. If a movie has its weaknesses, be honest about it. Jesus didn’t tell us to preach to the choir, after all, but to all nations. It won’t do us any good to claim something is great when it’s not – it just turns people off and they won’t trust us when something truly great DOES come along.

  • http://themoleshollow.blogspot.com/ Becca

    Are you going to be doing more movie and book reviews, Simcha? Because you have a real talent for it, and I love the perspective you bring (Catholic, but anti-hokey.)

    You and Julie from Happy Catholic are just about the only people on the internet that I trust when it comes to movies and books.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      Thanks, Becca – good idea, I would like to do more reviews.

  • http://scrutinies.net Dorian Speed

    Simcha, you’re my hero.

  • http://scrutinies.net Dorian Speed

    Me again – when I was watching the movie at a screening, I kept thinking, “I sure hope Barbara Nicolosi’s Spanish Civil War movie will be better than this.” (Totally agree with you that Charlie Cox was great – WHY DID THEY PUT IN THE OTHER STUFF?).

    So I am very sad to inform you that this movie IS the product of Barbara Nicolosi’s original script, just mangled to such an extent that she’s now not even listed as the screenwriter. I really would have liked to see her version.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/22/movies/22opus.html

  • Margaret

    @Dorian– my understanding is that Joffe was presented with BN’s original script, along with a lot of supplementary materials about St. Josemaria. Joffe rejected the project up front, script and all, but changed his mind after watching some of the original film footage of St. Josemaria. He was willing to make the movie after that BUT wanted to do his own script treatment…

    • Margaret

      ALL RIGHT DUH!!! Serves me right for commenting before clicking through the link which states more clearly than I could what I just mumbled out. Sorry. Move along. Nothing to see here… :)

  • http://beatencopperlamp.blogspot.com Sarah @BeatenCopperLamp

    Simcha, when I think your posts cannot get any awesomer, you pull stunts like this. Thank you for calling out Christian/Catholic cinema that is well intentioned, but, how shall I put this, ridiculous. My 17 year old brother is really stoked for this movie but the whole Fascist subplot has me perplexed. Does the movie say Fascists are bad? What about those Catholics (including most of my high school) who think Franco was really a misunderstood good guy and the Fascists were total Catholic heroes? (I really need to read more abt the Spanish Civil War.)

    I’ve seen both Fireproof and its cousin “Facing the Giants.” I feel bad making fun of their stilted acting and contrived storylines, because I know people who have truly been inspired by them. Still, there is a difference between a good message and good cinema, and Catholic origins do not give you a free pass in the artistic department. I like your approach of appreciating the good parts but not whitewashing the disappointments.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      I have no idea how this matches up to actual history (which is, of course, always in dispute anyway), but what I got from the movie was that Josemaria’s main message was that hatred and revenge is always wrong, and forgiveness is always called for. In the movie, he tried to make his friends feel sympathy for the rebels, who were striking back against oppression. I’m fairly dense about these things, but I did not see any pro-Fascist message. They never mentioned the name of Franco, and referred to “the government” or “the enemy.” As far as I could tell, both sides looked equally guilty.

  • http://philosophermoms.blogspot.com Erika

    Oh, blech. Thanks for the fair warning. And for probably the best movie review I’ve ever read.

  • http://scrutinies.net Dorian Speed

    Plus, I think they considered it clever to make the Manolo character a double agent, as that was a way to show both sides of the conflict, but it just felt very forced. Designed to remind us that Manolo was a Bad Dude who Needed Redemption.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      Yeah, whenever you say “I think they considered it clever” when speaking of the making of a movie, that’s a bad sign. I felt like I was sitting on the couch next to the entire crew, and they wouldn’t shut up the whole time the movie was playing.

  • http://sarahboylewebber.blogspot.com/ Sarah Webber

    Simcha & The Jerk do the Movies. Now that sounds fun!

  • MK

    “I’m awfully, awfully tired of Catholics being the boogeyman in popular culture, but I’m also awfully, awfully tired of being told that everything that’s wholesome is a MUST SEE, a piece of CINEMATIC BRILLIANCE that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE, and is about FIREMEN.”

    I’ve never commented before, but this comment (which I so agree with!) just impels me to say how thoroughly I enjoy your writing, both here and at the Register. You are always so refreshing and real, and thought-provoking as well.

  • http://dad29.blogspot.com dad29

    I’m also awfully, awfully tired of being told that everything that’s wholesome is a MUST SEE, a piece of CINEMATIC BRILLIANCE that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE, and is about FIREMEN.

    Thank you. Actually, it’s worse than you depict it; most often, the above is followed by “If you do not see this, your condemnation to Hell is assured. If you intend to remain a Catholic, you MUST see this, and pay us money, because WE are of GOOD WILL, and YOU have obligations!”

    It’s good old-fashioned clericalism, transposed.

  • http://www.sponsa-christi.blogspot.com/ a consecrated virgin

    I saw this movie, and I feel the same way as Simcha—I liked it, I’d tell other people to go see it, but I just don’t think it lived up to its potential.

    One minor thing that really drove me crazy was how all the characters were speaking English, but with Spanish accents! To me, the move would have been a lot better artistically if they had either: 1. accepted the fact that this was not a Spanish-language film and had all the actors speak English normally; or 2. actually made the movie in Spanish, with English subtitles.

    The fact that the actors were all sort of pretending to speak Spanish added a certain layer of silliness to the film. (Can you imagine what “The Passion of the Christ” would have been like if everyone spoke in English with phony Middle eastern accents?)

    But on the plus side…

    I particularly enjoyed the scene where St. Josemaria had the mystical experience that inspired him to found Opus Dei. Among other reasons, because it contained a flashback to the candy factory where Josemaria’s father (or grandfather?) was telling him the life-lessons that could be gleaned from considering a cocoa bean (i.e., it starts out bitter and unremarkable, but with patience and hard work it’s turned into something “divine”…) As I said to the priest sitting next to me at the screening, a spirituality of chocolate is definitely something I could get into! ;)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      Oh yeah, that was another thing! I agree — either just speak English, or do subtitles. Some of the accents were pretty feeble, too, which was distracting.

      I didn’t care for the whole cocoa bean thing, but it wasn’t a major problem – I just thought that it was like the rest of the movie, rather heavy handed.

  • Tom

    “. . . if this is making any sense, I’m telling it wrong.”

    Priceless. Best sentence fragment of the month.

  • Barbara N.

    Joffe NEVER had any interest in making a story of St. Josemaria. He has been basically out of work for decades and has been making psycho-sexual indie porn in Europe. But when the cluless Catholics from Opus Dei came along with a huge fistful of cash – we’re talking about $42 million that was blown on There Be Dragons – Joffe licked his lips and took them for it all. He made them pay him extravagant amounts to rewrite the script and then to direct. He had to trash the original script because he is a hardcore leftist who is one of those people who thinks Catholicism is what’s wrong with the world, and the original script was all about the saint’s spiritual journey. The whole marketing scheme of trying to get Catholics out to see the movie by pretending that Joffe is a seeker is a sham. But frankly, the whole production has been marked with breaches in professionalism and ethics. As Hollywood figured out long ago, Joffe is not a writer and not that good of a director, and to cover for his lack of talent he routinely treats everyone around him with brutishness. No one in Hollywood would work with him. No one in the legitimate business would ever give him $42 million to spend.

    There be Dragons will mainly last as a textbook case of well-intentioned by, basically, artistically and professionally ignorant Catholics behaving very, very badly in pandering to celebrity and dumping their ethics, their legal obligations, the truth and even their saint over the side. Sadly, I don’t see another St. Josemaria project getting anywhere after this one bombs. And it will bomb royally. The secular reviews coming in are blistering.

    • The Jerk

      I think they did you a favor, taking your name off this stinkburger. Let them own it and move on.

  • The Jerk

    Opus Dei unethical?

  • http://www.gilbertmagazine.com Sean P. Dailey

    As of this morning TBD is scoring a whopping 14 percent on rottentomatoes.

  • Mary S

    Hey, some people like cheesy. I loved Fireproof. But I recognize my weakness for cheesiness; plus, I still think Cameron’s kind of dreamy.

    What I can’t stand is “artsy”. But it makes a STATEMENT! It’ll appeal to the MASSES! No it won’t. It’ll be accused of making a lame attempt at converting hearts via some form of marketing and artistic seduction. And often, its entire point will fail miserably just in the telling of the story.

    I will watch Fireproof over Bella any day. At least Fireproof owns its cheesiness. Bella’s statement ends up ambiguous and trite (Unplanned pregnancy? No worries! just find a hot guy with a troubled past to adopt the kid. It really IS that easy, for a low low price of 29.95), combined with poor writing and little plot. I remember my husband and me at the end going, “uh, so did he adopt her baby? Is that what that is? Is this the future? Why did they just skip like 4 years? What the heck happened to the mom that she’s so different now?”

  • Diane

    I was kind of stunned by what Barbara wrote. Is that the real story? Because they sure had me fooled…..

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      Diane, all I know is what I saw on the screen!

  • CV

    Barbara N. (Nicolosi):

    Frankly you sound extremely bitter. I don’t blame you for feeling that way…it sounds like you were screwed royally during the early stages of this production. I presume that your original script was pretty good and based on what I’ve read it was apparently your idea to bring St. Josemaria’s life to the screen in the first place. I’m guessing the whole experience was deeply painful.

    Given your history with this project, it’s really impossible for you to be objective about the film that was actually made. Yes it has shortcomings but it’s not like Joffe is a talentless hack (The Mission, The Killing Fields? Come on.)

    The Spanish Civil War is an extraordinarily complex subject and there seems to be a good bit of confusion among reviewers as to what the basic facts are. For example, Simcha says that the Manolo character is a Fascist government mole. The Fascists/nationalists were not the “government” during this conflict…they were the rebels. And in general, as is often the case, a lot of reviewers have their own issues and preconceptions about Catholic teaching and that is reflected in the reviews (such as the NYT, Orlando Sentinel, etc.).

    In my humble opinion, as the National Review says here, “See a Good Movie about a Good Man”:

    http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/print/266592

    I saw it. I liked it a lot. It is not a perfect film and maybe I am too familiar with St. Josemaria’s personal story to be completely objective, but it’s a good film and it’s worth seeing.

    And please, everyone who keeps calling this movie Catholic/Christian cinema in the mode of Fireproof…it’s really not. Joffe may be a lot of things, but Catholic/Christian is not one of them.

    I await the scathing response that Barb is so good at.

    • The Jerk

      Of course the no talent hacks at National Review like this garbage stew. They love propaganda. The movie fails the first, and most important test: it is not at all entertaining.

  • bob cratchit

    ‘the plot thickens’

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

    “there seems to be a good bit of confusion among reviewers as to what the basic facts are.”

    And that would be the director’s fault. I don’t know enough history to know who was on what side, and the movie certainly didn’t clarify.

    I, for one, compared it to “Fireproof” not because of what kind of movie it was, but because of the way that people are promoting it: Watch it because it has a good message! Watch it because it’s about Catholics! Phooey. I require my entertainment to be entertaining. I don’t see the point of “supporting” something that’s mediocre, as if the world is one big Facebook page that needs to require a certain number of “likes” so it can get a free trip to Disneyland or something. If you are a professional moviemaker, then make a damn professional movie. Half of this one looked like made for TV schlock.

  • Martha

    Now I cannot see the posters for this movie without thinking “Where Be Story Editor?” Which is bad, because some group at our parish bought a bunch of tickets and put up posters on the bulletin boards. So I’m snickering every time I walk in to Mass.

  • CV

    My problem isn’t with your opinion, Simcha, which of course is as valid as anyone else’s. IMO you make some good points about the film.

    I think one of the major problems with the movie is that it’s extremely difficult to communicate the facts about the Spanish Civil War when it’s so exceedingly complex.

    For a good, short primer on the history involved, see this:

    http://www.wauckinrome.com/2011/05/03/first-a-little-history/

    The issue that prompted my post is this: Barbara Nicolosi is unloading heaping buckets of sour grapes on your blog.

    She is entitled to her opinion about her own experience with Joffe, but when she starts calling others who chose to become involved with this film (in good faith) “well-intentioned but artistically and professionally ignorant”…well, I take issue with that.

    She is stepping way over the line, big time.

    Your mileage may vary.

    • The Jerk

      Sounds like you’re an interested party. One of the things I never liked about Opus Dei is their dime store manipulation techniques. Tell the truth, what’s your connection?

      • David B

        Fr Wauck is an American Opus Dei priest who lives in Rome. That’s the OD connection. By the way the whole film has been promoted heavily by OD using their internal communication channels, and it was financed heavily by OD sympathizers. The problem with the movie stems from the fact that they wanted to give it a Hollywood luster hiring Joffe as an Agnostic-who-gets-impressed-with-St-Josemaria. Is a common OD tactic to use the good reputation of other people to get some outsider cred. Anyway, St Josemaria was not as tolerant as they portray him in the movie. I can testify this as an ex-member who spent 11 years in “the work of God”. For example, in the 60′s and 70′s he was very upset with the Second Vatican Council and he even expressed his reservations about the holiness of Pope Paul VI and Cardinal Benelli. He even was taped saying them, but the tapes had been retired from the OD centers in the last 10 years. I had the opportunity of watching them when I was an insider. Examples of his personal tantrums when things didn’t go his way were popular in the work and they were interpreted as his passion for perfection and for the Church. But he used to get upset even if the marble of an altar he commisioned wasn’t of the quality he desired.

  • CV

    I am married to an Opus Dei supernumerary.

    I’m an Opus Dei cooperator myself, which basically means I don’t have the personal vocation my husband has, but I do support them, pray for them and have benefited from occasional spiritual direction, retreats, etc. You don’t even have to be Catholic to be a cooperator. You could look it up on their top secret website:

    http://www.opusdei.us/art.php?p=300

    Is that specific enough for you? Or would you like to see my tax return?

    Oh, and I also happen to be a regular person with a handful of children and couple of degrees who likes going to the movies and once took a “film as literature” course as an undergraduate. That’s what qualifies me for expressing my (admittedly biased) opinion about a movie that’s meaningful to me on websites I admire enough to read on a regular basis.

    Am I an “interested party”? Yeah, guess so. Apparently calling out an embittered screenwriter qualifies as a “dime store manipulation technique.” Who knew?

    I’m quite familiar with “The Jerk” (er, dragon) myself. (S)he usually manifests herself at moments like these.

    I’m quite sure St. Josemaria wouldn’t approve, but hey, there’s always Confession, right? Thank God.

    • The Jerk

      Good, we’re getting closer to the truth.

      I once took a philosophy class, I guess that makes me Aristotle.

      A careful reader of this site knows who I am.

      The movies sucks eggs. It has nothing to do with the real St. Josemaria. He’s the only interesting character in the whole mess.

      If I was BN, I would be upset too. I’d like to think I could walk away, but after seeing the OP’s out, behaving as I am sure thier saint would approve, maybe I understand her desire to tell some portion of the truth.

    • The Jerk

      By the way, I love how you imply I committed a sin by giving my opinion about Opus Dei and the craptastic movie. Like I said, dime store.

  • Brynne

    Okay, you get tons of comments, but can I just say that I’m so glad to have found your voice in the Catholic blog world? I wanted so badly to like this movie but I just couldn’t. And I realized that I recognized your name because you made me laugh out loud in the latest faith and family magazine. I’ll be hitting your archives soon and I hope that you keep writing far into the future!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

    Oh my stars. Okay, The Jerk and CV can certainly obviously both take care of themselves, but for the record — boy, I can’t believe how many times I’ve had to explain this — but no, The Jerk is not my alter ego or some kind of projection of my id or something. My id gets plenty of airtime under my real name. I only write — here or anywhere else — under my real name; the Jerk is someone else. And St. Josemaria is yet again another person, so let’s all quit pretending he knows what he would and would not have sent us into the confessional for.

    I don’t see what’s so terrible about saying

    that people involved in this film were “well-intentioned but artistically and professionally ignorant” when it’s an unprofessional and artistically impoverished movie. That’s not an attack against Opus Dei or Fr. Escriva or anyone, it’s just saying that the end result was pretty poor, and if they did pour money into it — yeah, they got taken. If you’re in Opus Dei, I can totally understand how this would seem like a decent movie. However, it’s getting very poor reviews from all quarters, from pretty much everyone except Opus Dei people.

  • CV

    Uh huh.

    Well, you’re certainly persuading me to become a more “careful reader” of your site, that’s for sure.

    You might want to rethink the literary device of “The Jerk,” but hey, that’s just me.

    As I said, St. Josemaria would most surely NOT approve of my behavior, but I’m already well aware of that, thanks.

    The comment about the “film as literature” class was a joke, by the way.

    I’m outta here, but congrats on the new baby.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      Nope, not a literary device. Literally a different person.

      I got a little overheated yesterday, and I’m sorry about that. It is, after all, just a movie!

      • CV

        Yeah, I likewise apologize and plead guilty to overheated typing yesterday.

        I understand what you’re saying about The Jerk and I think I can make an educated guess as to who it might be.

        Since it appears to be someone you know (and love?) I’d just like to clarify for the record (and The Jerk) that when I suggest that St. Josemaria would recommend Confession to someone who is recklessly flinging virtual spitballs across the Internet, I’m referring to MYSELF. My OWN sins (which are hard enough to keep up with)…not anyone else’s.

        I stand by my comments about BN and my personal “review’ (good film…could have been better) and you’re right, it’s only a movie.

        The thing is, I know many Opus Dei folks personally. I’m particularly fond of the one I am married to.

        I’ve met Fr. John Wauck, the OD priest who was a consultant to Joffe on the film (and was featured in the National Review Q&A I linked earlier).

        When BN says this:

        “…artistically and professionally ignorant Catholics behaving very, very badly in pandering to celebrity and dumping their ethics, their legal obligations, the truth and even their saint over the side….”

        Umm, no. She is way, WAY out of line. And downright mean. And in my opinion, flat-out wrong.

        Reasonable people can differ about the quality and merits of There Be Dragons.

        I recently took a carful of kids to the movies. The film we originally went to see was sold out and our only choice was Gulliver’s Travels. Jack Black, larger-than-life (in more ways than one) and in 3-D. Talk about craptastic.

        Now THAT’s $75 (plus popcorn/drinks) and three hours of my life that I’ll never get back :-)

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

          Thanks for getting back! Phew, I don’t know how you stood the Jack Black experience — I like him in theory, but I can’t stand to look at him.

          I think the part that send the Jerk off yesterday was this: You said that Barbara Nicolosi is “flat-out wrong” when she described what went on during the production of this movie — but then you said that you had no vested interest in the movie. I think that’s what set him off: if are simply a disinterested observer, then how would you have enough inside information to know that BN is wrong? Maybe she’s wrong and maybe she’s right — but I don’t see how someone who wasn’t there can say. That’s why he suspected you of being an “interested party” (someone trying to promote the movie): from his perspective, it seemed like you were trying to say both “I have inside information about what did and didn’t go on” AND “I’m just a regular joe who loved this film.”

          I’m just trying to explain how it played out from our end. I’m not sure why the Jerk got so upset, except that … well, #1, he’s The Jerk; and #2, we’ve both had some crappy experiences with people who make a big deal out of being Opus Dei insiders. And they acted EXACTLY LIKE the way BN described. We saw a lot of manipulation and dishonesty (and constant suggestion that maybe we should visit the inside of the confessional a tad more often) which unfortunately left us very suspicious of OD people.

          I know some people will say, “Well, of course that’s why she didn’t like the movie – she’s prejudiced against Opus Dei.” But actually the OD parts were the only parts I liked about it, and I went in hoping to learn more about the organization (and was disappointed), because I KNOW I have an unfair prejudice, based on only a few bad apples.

          Oh, also, Hollywood is absolutely rife with the kind of behavior that Nicolosi describes (I know this because of the stories my father-in-law, who was a TV and movie producer, used to tell.) This is just how people act. So when BN says that Opus Dei people got together with Hollywood people and everyone behaved badly . . . to us, that sounded likely.

          Okay, I suppose I should make supper for my children or something. I’m really not trying to reignite an argument, just trying to explain what maybe seemed to you like an irrational reaction to your comment.

          • CV

            Yes, Jack Black, 80 ft. tall (and wide) in 3-D. Talk about penance.

            At one point in the movie “Giant Jack” put out a fire on the ground by opening his fly and….well….never mind. I’ve digressed enough :-)

            I’m just back to take one more whack at this horse, even though it’s nearly dead. I feel compelled to clarify that I–a Kia-driving mom in a midwestern city suburb–live 2,440 miles from L.A. I’m in no way, shape or form an “insider” on the Dragons film.

            It’s kind of amusing to me that I may have given that impression. No, I’m merely a nerd who appreciates good writing–that’s why I read your blog. That’s also why I was a regular reader of Barbara Nicolosi’s blog (Church of the Masses) for quite a few years until her posts dropped off dramatically. Even though she was circumspect about her screenplay development, it was clear she traveled to Spain and had begun researching/writing something about St. Josemaria and the Spanish Civil War. So I became interested, eventually learned about the Joffe project, and have followed the project from afar with interest ever since. I loved The Mission so I was optimistic about the end result.

            I have NO IDEA how things actually went down, but based on the vituperative little missives she has dropped in comment boxes like yours, I assume it wasn’t pretty. I don’t think her experience, whatever it was, gives her license to trash people like Fr. John Wauck, however, and that’s basically what she is doing.

            I’m sorry to hear you’ve had bad experiences with Opus Dei people. Truly, I am. I’m sure my defensive sniping in your comment box didn’t help.

            All I can say is, my own experience has been the exact opposite. I regularly encounter wonderful lay people and priests in OD and I’ve benefitted spiritually a great deal as a result. I have no doubt that there are bad apples in the basket (and that’s true of any human organization), I just haven’t run into any.

            What I have run into is this. Thanks to books and movies like The DaVinci Code, members of my own Catholic family and friends think that my husband and I belong to some kind of top secret, self-flagellating, ultra-conservative cult that’s sucking all of our money. Invitations to check it out for themselves are politely declined.

            The fact is, it’s a group of kind, sincere fellow Catholics who provide spiritual direction, opportunities for ongoing formation, and encourage radical activities like attending mass more than once a week and saying the Rosary.

            I see St. Josemaria Escriva as a rock star of a saint. I had high hopes for this movie. I saw it, generally liked it (in spite of its artistic shortcomings) and thought it presented him honestly and in a positive light. I thought Charlie Cox did a great job with the role.

            I invited my sister, who is in serious need of spiritual formation, to see it with me.

            Her response? Pass.

            Why? Because it’s agenda-driven drivel that’s tanking on Rotten Tomatoes.

            She did pay for the Jack Black movie, however.

            So it’s disappointing.

          • http://scrutinies.net Dorian Speed

            Hi, CV – like you, I read Barbara’s blog for years and years, and I knew she’d put a lot of herself into writing the original screenplay. I don’t know what went down after that, but I guess I am very sympathetic to her primarily because I really didn’t care for this movie and I feel like we’ll never know how it could have turned out.

            I wish they had left the Manolo character and story arc out ENTIRELY. Contrived, predictable, terrible makeup on “Old Manolo” and very corny ending. In my opinion. It felt like they were banging on my head and saying “FEEL MOVED BY THIS!”

            I thought Charlie Cox was *fabulous.* I wonder how much of the original screenplay chronicled the life of St. Josemaria Escriva, and how much better a movie it might have been. Maybe it wouldn’t have been any better; I don’t know.

            But, in my opinion, this movie is something I’d recommend to many of my Catholic friends because it does, yes, have a good message – and would get them more interested in St. Josemaria Escriva, I think.

            It is not a movie I would recommend to most people on its merits, or lack thereof, as a movie. So there’s a big wasted opportunity there to show people more about the life of this saint, because it was wrapped up in schmaltz and An Important Message.

            What frustrates me – and not that I see this happening in this discussion – is the fact that here we have a movie that’s just not all that great. Critical reaction has been very negative. I worry that the critical reception is going to be interpreted by some Catholics as “the critics have an animus against the Church and didn’t grant the movie a fair shake,” which may sometimes be the case, but…it’s also just not a great movie. Again – in my opinion.

            I feel like if we’re going to be about making art, we have to be deeply committed at making TERRIFIC art.

            Then I feel bad for being mean to the movie.

  • Rebecca

    I just saw it tonight, Simcha…and sort of liked it but also felt confused and dissatisfied and wasn’t sure why. Thank you for putting it into words. I really thought The Mission was such a well-put-together film (though it wasn’t perfect) and I expected more from this. You articulate the problems perfectly.

  • http://secondchancesblog.blogspot.com Second Chances

    I’m not an Opus Dei member, and I thought it was fantastic. You guys are super critical! Wow. Isn’t this website a Catholic website? I thought we were supporting each other. We’re all just trying to get to heaven, right? Just sayin’…

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      See, this is the attitude I really don’t understand. If you thought it was a good movie, that’s fine, no accounting for taste. But why the heck would *I* have to say it’s a good movie just because I’m Catholic? Being Catholic doesn’t mean you have to throw your taste or judgment out the window. “Just trying to get to heaven” is no excuse for putting out mediocre work.

      Now, as far as Catholics supporting other Catholics . . . if I want to buy, say, a pencil, and I have a choice between a pencil from Walmart and a pencil from Our Lady Of Fatima Pencil Emporium, then sure – I’ll buy the pencil from the Catholics. I may even pay a little extra for it, if it would support a fellow Catholic. BUT NOT IF THEY’RE LOUSY PENCILS. This movie was a lousy pencil, and I think that if Catholics pretend they like something they don’t just because it’s Catholic, then they’re actually doing damage to the reputation of the Church. So there.

  • http://secondchancesblog.blogspot.com Second Chances

    Wow. Ok. Enough said.

  • The Jerk

    The worst part of that turd sandwich? No dragons. So, before I go off to see my spiritual advisor (disliking bad movies is a fault of mine,) ladies and gentlemen, here be some f’ing dragons:

    http://www.google.com/m/search?gl=us&client=safari&source=mog&q=dragontales&hl=en&site=images&ei=8ubFTfD6OoPylAfMspBR&ved=0CCIQ7AkwAg

  • bob cratchit

    “But why the heck would *I* have to say it’s a good movie just because I’m Catholic? Being Catholic doesn’t mean you have to throw your taste or judgment out the window.” – very good point, Smicha. We probably do appear a bit sheepish when we flock to the cinema for these. It’s silly when you think about it, I caved and watched Fireproof, mainly because I watched the other 2 films by the same brothers. The first one, Flywheel was actually not bad for a low budget film but eventually the flagrant evangelicalism gets irritating.

  • Jo Flemings

    I find TBD to be thought provoking- love, love, loved the portrayal of Escriva- very endearing!

    Yes, the rest is sort of strange, but did you see the testimonial by the guy who played Manolo? Maybe it was a marketing ploy but he said that working on that film really changed his life for good- and that makes so much of what might be ‘drivel-esque’ in the film, really huge to me. Just maybe the experience- faulty result included, worked in some people’s lives for profound good- for God.

    Maybe that would make Barbara’s suffering more meaningful- I hope so.

    You know my favorite quote from Chesterton is …”anything worth doing is worth doing badly….” (– or maybe it’s poorly, I forget). So while I am all for rising to the occasion, when we very clearly have some of the financial and artistic means, if in our abject spiritual poverty as 21st century American Catholics this is the best we can help bring forth for the sake of souls and it actually does help save even just one soul, well, that’s a good thing! Probably worth my support and maybe even my $10, even if it’s lacking in some significant areas. The more we make the better we will get, right?

    And at the same time if we do not find some greater measure of unity and charity and more support amongst ourselves we will just find ourselves sitting in the cheap seats watching the Protestants and others fumble around trying to create something worthwhile, as our culture continues to go to hell in a handbasket with a plethora of Catholics arguing in comboxes over how hot it actually is there, and how long the basket will last once it hits the flames.


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