Confronting Spain's dragons

[MADRID] I have spent the week helping in the world launch of Roland Joffe's new film, There Be Dragons, which was premiered here on Wednesday night and goes on general release in 300 Spanish cinemas today. Some 100,000 tickets have been pre-sold, meaning you can't get a ticket this weekend -- something which, as the Antena 3 TV channel has been reporting, has never happened before in Spain.

Declaration of strong interest: I'm part of the team engaged in the grassroots marketing to congregations, so I won't comment here on the movie itself -- which hits the U.S. 6 May, Latin America over the summer, and the rest of Europe in the Fall -- except to point out the well-known facts about it: that it's set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, has as its main character a young Fr Josemara Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, and that it carries a powerful message of forgiveness as the way out of conflict in both families and nations (Joffe says that a civil war is a metaphor, in a way, for a family conflict). John Allen, who has seen the movie and written about it here, says it's sure to provoke intense discussion among Catholics.


But right now, the 6-million euro question is: will it provoke heated debate in Spain, still haunted by the "culture wars" provoked by the legacy of the 1930s fratricidal conflict? Directed by a self-confessed left-leaning "wobbly agnostic" -- well-known to Catholics, of course, for his 1980s epic The Mission -- Dragons is a produced by a passionate and charming 40-year-old financier, Ignacio Gómez-Sancha, who, like his partner Ignacio Nunez, is a supernumerary member of Opus Dei. The two Ignacios raised the $38m budget by doggedly seeking out private investors -- many (but by no means all) of whom are also members -- in the wake of the financial collapse of September 2008. Yet Joffe asked for, and had, complete creative freedom to portray Escriva as he thought fit -- and the script is entirely Joffe's.

The film triangulates the "two Spains" in other ways. Joffe's point of view, which might be described as a kind of humanism open to the transcendental, is embodied in Escriva's compassion -- insisting on understanding and empathising, and therefore opening the possibility of healing. In one key scene Josemaria tells his followers  -- who, like him, are full of anger and pain after a witnessing an act of callous anticlerical violence -- that they must forgive. "Now, more than ever, we must be sowers of peace", he tells them. Within Joffe's overall critique of ideologies, it is clear his own sympathies are with the left, who are romantically portrayed, whereas an early scene with the nationalists make them look like thugs. Yet the movie breaks ranks with the unspoken veto on showing the anticlerical outrages of the early 1930s: in the movie, churches are burned and priests are killed (around 60,000 priests and nuns lost their lives as direct result of the purges). In other words, both sides will find reasons to accuse the movie of being biased.

And even before it has gone on general release, the critiques have come in from both sides. So deeply entrenched is the left-wing abhorrence of Opus Dei as a symbol of everything they deplore in the Spain of Church and monarchy, for example, the daily El Publico the other day had a page ranting at the absurdity of portraying Josemaria Escriva as in favour of "social justice". Conversely, some right-wing media have got wind that the movie portrays the generals as ordering assassinations of trade unionists before the beginning of the war itself, something which, they say, never happened -- it was the Falangists who carried out the killings. 

There's more of this kind of debate likely in the next week, as Spaniards start to see the movie in numbers. Both Joffe and Gomez-Sancha are hoping that the movie will help Spain to confront the dragons of its past by understanding the need to empathise with the other side and forgive. Both sides had their ideals, and their justifications. Both sides dehumanised the other. Both sides committed atrocities. it's time to understand that, and forgive.

Spain never had a "truth and reconciliation" process as in South Africa. They never put on trial Franco's men who ordered, in the late 1930s, the brutal, systematic murder of tens of thousands of Republicans. The price of an orderly transition to democracy following Franco's death in 1975 was a kind of collective silence about these as well as earlier atrocities committed by anarchists and communists. The facts have been brought to light, particularly since the discovery of mass graves after the year 2000; but the process of healing has yet to begin.

I was at the Vatican on Monday night helping to show the movie to 150 cardinals, bishops, ambassadors and members of Opus Dei -- see CNS report here. Presenting the movie, Joffe [pictured, with Gomez-Sancha to his right] made a striking analogy between St Josemaria and Nelson Mandela. He said "it would be wonderful" if There Be Dragons helped the twenty-first century to be seen as “the century of reconciliation”, in which "we began once again to discover our innate humanity that exists in all of us” and to heal the wounds of the twentieth-century wars. He said: "It’s wonderful that President Mandela was capable of doing that in South Africa, and it’s wonderful to me that Josemaría Escrivá as a young man fought for the importance of that, and carried the Christian message in such a remarkable way that I who am, I confess, a rather wishy-washy agnostic, found myself standing in total admiration and driven to want to do my best for this movie."

When I interviewed Joffe a few weeks ago he told me how he had imagined a conversation between St Josemaria and Dan Berrigan, the Jesuit peace activist who was very influential on The Mission. Berrigan

"....was totally against nuclear weapons and went to prison for this. He daubed blood on nuclear missiles, he protested. I thought, “If these two men sat down and had a conversation, what would they say to each other?” They would not critique each other, in the sense of Dan accusing Josemaría of being apolitical; Josemaría had to be. Equally, Josemaría wouldn't have looked at Dan and said, “Fr Berrigan, you involved yourself in politics and ideology, and, this is bad!” I think they would have said: “God set us different challenges, because we lived in different times; we were required to do different things.”

It is a stimulating point. The heroic stance of Dan Berrigan was in committing himself to political change at a time when the Church -- in the reading of liberation theology -- was complicit in an unjust order. But in the 1930s, the heroic stance of St Josemaria was in refusing to be caught up in the cycle of political vengeance in which the Church was (for understandable reasons, given the anticlerical violence) thoroughly  involved.

Berrigan was a kind of on-set adviser and chaplain during the filming of The Mission in Colombia (which stood for Paraguay); during the shoot of There Be Dragons -- in Argentina, which stands for Spain -- the chaplain and on-set adviser was Fr John Wauck, a Rome-based American Opus Dei priest who in a previous life was a political speechwriter. Fr John has created a special blog, "A priest among dragons", in which he thanks Berrigan for, as it were, going ahead of him. 

Opus Dei and Jesuits. Agnostics and Opus Dei supernumeraries. Left and Right. There Be Dragons has created a lot of odd new bedfellows.

Whether it will help Spain confront its own dragons is another question. I'm staying here for the next week on holiday and will let you know.

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Jim McCrea
8 years ago
Nelson Mandela is not Winnie Mandela and is not Jacob Zuma.
If accepting your ad hominem attacks are conditions for your staying on this side fo the Tiber, feel free to swim back.
Kang Dole
8 years ago
Both the Killing Fields and The Mission are very powerful films. I have always really regreted that Joffé's career went south and I hope that this film demonstrates a revival of his former potential. At the very least, I hope it's better than Super Mario Brothers!
Crystal Watson
8 years ago
Maybe my point of view is skewed but I find it almost grotesque to compare  Mandela or Berrigan to the Franco-supporting Escriva.
david power
8 years ago
Crystal ,

Your point of view is truly skewed on this matter. St Josemaria may not be everybody's cup of tea but he was an inspiring priest who was way ahead of his time. To term him a franco supporter is about as historically correct as terming Mandela a Stalin supporter even if he was partial to the communists.  This film may or may  not be good but I hope that it is the beginning of an honest telling of history. Maybe then we could have a film on Miguel Pro SJ who was no doubt called a fascist in his time too.

We dont need hagiography a la George Weigel but also we should recognize a good priest when  we see one , God knows there are enough  bad ones.

Below is a beautiful prayer by Berrigan that is worth a read. 

Anne Chapman
8 years ago
I read a review of this movie recently, which I can't find now, unfortunately. However, it struck me  when reading the review that this may be Opus Dei's ''answer'' to The Da Vinci Code, which, of course, did not portray OD in a favorable light. I thought the book (Da Vinci Code) was third-rate writing, and never saw the movie.  This movie may be good, from the artistic or entertainment point of view - that remains to be seen.

But, one must wonder if it is it simply a sophisticated propoganda piece.  While the director may be an ''agnostic'', apparently two producers of the film are members of Opus Dei, and apparently either Opus Dei itself, or its members put up millions  to produce this movie.  Is it simply tryng to buy itself a better reputation among the general public who saw Da Vinci?

Obviously Mr. Ivereigh is heavily invested in this movie on a personal level. Perhaps he could enlighten us as to the influence of the OD-linked funders and OD producers on the portrayal of Escriva.  Crystal is not alone in being offended at the comparison of Escriva with someone like Mandela.  And since Escriva's support of Franco seems pretty well documented by historians, perhaps this movie is partially intended as a whitewash of that history - is it as ''honest'' a telling as Mr. Power hopes?
david power
8 years ago
 What the hell does that mean?
 Are you that thinskinned that you get your knickers in a twist over something like one person comparing somebody to another?. Mandela was a politician thrown in jail where he languished for 26 years, while inside his wife ruled the ANC and was caught up in the hacking to death of  people.
Who is the current heir of the Mandela throne? Zuma. Maybe you should read up about this guy before you start frothing at the mouth over a saint being raised to the hallowed and rarefied air of Mandela.  
I respect Mandela but please stop being offended people. It is nauseating . Can you produce this welldocumented history ? Or is it just enough to throw it out there? 
All this holier-than-thouness from Churchhaters is enough to make me go back over the Tiber . 

I am "offended" !!!!       
Crystal Watson
8 years ago

Have you read Escriva's congratulatory letter to Franco? ....

Have you read Wikipedia's info on Escriva's support not only of Franco but of Pinochet?  ....

To portray the fascist side of the Spanish Civil War as ok because it was Catholic is to not look at the whole picture  ...  ....   Spain: Bishops apologise for Church silence over Civil War killings

As for Escriva being a priest ahead of his time, his views on suffering and self-mortification would put the middle ages to shame.
david power
8 years ago

What can I say? Mortification, I do not practise myself. Self-mortification is too difficult for me and so would prefer the mortification of others. Mother Teresa was big into her mortification and no doubt was a bad egg to boot.The Jesuits also have a history of promoting mortification , a Jesuit friend asked me to offer up something for the poor and in some small way make myself more conscious of their suffering.You will be glad to know I did not.  
On the letter ,yes I had read it.Big deal. He wrote a letter. Joaquin Navarro Valls spent ages in conversation with Fidel Castro and by  all accounts they  had a great time.Hang him I say, he is obviously a commie.
This guy was obviously not in on the whole love affair. 
I lived in Chile for over a year and studied the history and although Pinochet did not kill a fraction of those that Castro killed he was still a pretty bad man (but did not to my knowledge practise mortification). In the beginning it was the Junta of four and and then about a year or so into it Pinochet was the clear leader  circa 75 .St Josemaria died that year.
I know many people in Opus Dei and the worst I can say about them is that they are very square. If you do not know any member I would suggest you go and meet them or else realize that you may be creating a big "other". 
The Romans say "A pensar mal non si sbaglia mai" "Thinking bad of others you will never go wrong". I actually agree with this statement and am glad to know I have company.        
david power
8 years ago
Jim , I feel the ex-communication hanging over me and cannot take it. I recant. 
I submit. "Eppur si muove". 
Kang Dole
8 years ago
Too bad people didn't get this worked up over the Scarlet Letter. Joffé might have been on the skids for a shorter amount of time.
7 years 12 months ago
The most beautiful book about the Spanish Civil War that I have ever read is 'The cypresses believe in God' by Jose Maria Gironella. Indeed, I believe it was held to be the best book on the topic by the generation of Spaniards that lived through those times. It is a great pity that (to my knowledge) it has never been filmed.

I really can't find words strong enough to recommend it. If you've ever wondered how and why half of Spain came to support church-burning maniacs while the other half embraced Franco read this book.

7 years 12 months ago
''I really can't find words strong enough to recommend it.''

I ordered it from Amazon yesterday.  Now to find time to read 800 pages.  Thank you for the recommendation. 
Evelyn Castleton
7 years 9 months ago
Can you tell me whether, and if so when, There Be Dragons will come out in South Africa? Thank you!
Evelyn H. Castleton
My email if you want it is ehcastleton (at)


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