[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.