We had the opportunity to attend a special viewing of There Be Dragons at our local theater yesterday. Roland Joffe’s film about St Josemaria Escriva was entertaining, intriguing and moving, so when the scion of a local Catholic family helped organize a group viewing we were invited along with families from several parishes in town. Thierry Wersinger was the host, the Bishop of Charleston was there and after a busy weekend with first Holy Communion and a state-wide celebration with the Vietnamese Community it was great to unwind and view this excellent new Catholic film.
As a writer who publishes film reviews, has trained as a screenwriter and worked at a low level in film production, I always cringe when I hear that a film version of a life of a saint is being planned. I cringe because there are so many good Catholic film projects out there that need funding and support. However, the worthy folks who want to fund a ‘good Catholic movie’ (but don’t actually know anything about making movies) most often want to fund a film about that special saint who has changed their life. Their enthusiasm and willingness to fund a huge project is wonderful, but alas, too often the result is marked by great doses of enthusiasm, piety and sincerity that are rarely matched by skill in scriptwriting, acting directing, producing and distribution.
Then when the moviegoing public yawns, and the film flops and everyone loses money, the worthy folks with fingers burned are never willing to invest in another Catholic movie, and too often we hear grumbling along the lines of “it figures that the movie wouldn’t succeed. The liberal, atheistic, anti Catholic media people were all against it because it was Catholic.” I’m sorry. The fact of the matter is, they were against it because it was a lousy, boring movie that was bound to be a flop and lose money.
You see, it’s very difficult to make a movie about a saint because a movie is a motion picture and a motion picture is….errr…pictures that move. In other words it’s about action. It’s about conflict. It’s visual. It’s visceral. It’s visible. The life of the saint is, for the most part one of inner conflict, the struggles of the heart and the journey of a soul, and these things are, by definition, silent, still and invisible. The screenwriter’s job is to make the struggle visible and full of action in some way. It’s very difficult, and to find some conflict they are usually forced to exaggerate some conflict the saint had with an ignorant superior or arrogant churchman.
Therefore, when I heard that Roland Joffe had written, directed and produced There Be Dragons I was encouraged and intrigued. How would he handle a film about a saint? The way Joffe chose to solve the problem was to create a two tiered film structure. The main story line is not about St Josemaria, but about a boyhood friend, Manolo, who chose the path of wealth, power and passion for a woman. We follow both young men in the midst of the outward struggle of the Spanish Civil war, and Manolo’s descent into violence and darkness showcases Josemaria’s choice for peace and light.
The device works pretty well, and it is certainly a clever way of dealing with the difficulties of making a movie about a saint. The problem comes with the introduction of a third major character–Manolo’s son–a journalist writing a book about St Josemaria Escriva–and it is through this character that the story of the two boys in the Spanish Civil War unfolds. His own search for his father and his origins drive the story, but this third story line also intrudes somewhat.
Putting these structural points on one side, the movie is genuinely powerful and absorbing. I was drawn into the life of Josemaria, and was moved by his courage and simple gentleness within the conflict of war. In fact, I wanted more of Josemaria and less of Manolo, and I think the storyline would have been better if we had had more direct conflict and interaction between the two. However, this would have probably taken the story too far from the actual facts of Josemaria’s life and would have made the film faulty for other reasons.
As you would expect from Joffe (who also wrote and directed The Mission) the production values, direction and cinematography are top notch. The battle scenes are well directed and exciting and the acting (with cameos by Derek Jacobi and Geraldine Chaplin) is excellent.
Anyway–do I recommend it or not? I certainly recommend it. Go and take family and friends. The film will draw you into the life of St Josemaria and you’ll come out wanting to be more holy…and that’s a pretty good bargain for the price of a movie ticket!