There Be Dragons

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!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04908173926196232573 Teresa

    Thanks for the review on There Be Dragons. I definitely want to see this movie.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17914929979000715108 There Be Dragons Movie

    Great review Father!The movie will show in Greenville until at least Thursday May 12th at Hollywood 20.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15825109896111176650 Giuseppe Ambrose

    Awesome review, Father! I've read a few others that weren't so keen on the movie. My motivation to hit the theater to see this, when I get a chance, has been reignited. Thanks!PS If people want to do a great a movie on action, and excitement and the human heart, they need to do one on St. Ambrose, and the conflict he had with Theodosius over the slaughter at the Circus Maximus, or the conflict between him and Valentinian's mother over the use of Churches by the Arians!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08951158090366758378 Christopher

    Father,I actually had the opposite experience; I found the Josemaria character cloying and his scenes overly obvious (they basically had him announcing every point they wanted to make rather than showing them through the story) and there was no arc. If I want a homily, I'll go to church. If I want a movie, I expect someone to make use of the medium.I didn't buy a number of the more melodramatic manolo scenes, and they too were overwritten, but I at least found them compelling. I've been telling people that if they took out the Josemaria stuff, they could have made a decent war movie about the need for forgiveness. Instead, they made a bad war movie about the need for forgiveness and tacked on a lot of extraneous scenes in which somebody continually spouts truisms.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16430567545267057741 John

    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.I cannot say "Amen" to this enough. Amen, amen, amen!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11740482509910163332 Gail F

    Have you seen that recent film on St. Bernadette that airs occasionally on EWTN? She doesn't look like a sturdy, uneducated peasant, she looks like a model! And neither she nor anyone else in the movie can act. I can't comment any more on the film because I could not get through it. This is the kind of thing I think of when I hear the word "Catholic movie" and it definitely makes me cringe.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17009181421025228191 Jay

    Another movie that must be made.. St. Edmund Campion and the recusants!With priest holes, secret Masses, underground printing presses, government agents on the hunt… a movie about Catholics in the sixteenth century would work well in the "spy" genre.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09561070172039384888 Barb Bathon

    I was at the movie on Sunday and enjoyed it very much. It was, in fact, the mother's day gift I asked to have with my family. It was nice to see our bishop there as well as so many other Catholics in Greenville, a town that tries at times to deny our existence among the baptists, but we were there! I had many other friends who attended on Friday and Saturday as well. My own son Josh will see it with his brother in law in Kansas City this weekend, before he spends two weeks in a Benedictine Monastery north of Kansas City. A perfect way to prepare for a monastic retreat! I would also recommend it!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07564546155986482730 Matthew M

    Have there been any updates about the JOHN HENRY NEWMAN movie?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01469622835449220113 Dymphna

    Although underclass women are often homely — hard living does that, Bernadette wasn't a bad looking girl in real life.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01060485151513077012 arowbee

    Robert Bolt wrote The Mission (and A Man for All Seasons). Both of those movies were world better than this one. The best parts of this movie were the parts written by history (Josemaria's actual life). The manolo stuff was overwrought and unnecessary. Too bad. The movie had a lot of potential.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05336781734419554046 broken

    It is an awful and unispiring movie. The characters have no depth, especially Escriva. It's laughable. Is this the best light Opus Dei could put their "saint" in, if so it's very dim. I walked away from this movie thinking what a coward Escriva was and baffled that he was declared a saint.


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