Dragon-Slayer: Roland Joff presents a prehistory of St. Josemaria Escriva

In an early scene in Roland Joffé’s newest film, “There Be Dragons,” the camera offers the audience an unusual point of view. A shot, angled upward, encompasses a room in which two boys sit in chairs, side by side. In the foreground, a pair of glasses rests on a table, and each lens frames one of the boys.

One is a young Josemaría Escrivá; the other is Manolo, a foil and fictional childhood friend of Escrivá. In the film, as one might expect of a future saint, Escrivá takes to heart the values of faith, community and forgiveness. Manolo takes a different path, one of revenge, betrayal and solitude. As symbolized by this shot, each boy views life through a distinct lens, and these vastly different perspectives will shape the men they become.

Fast forward a few decades, and we find Manolo (Wes Bentley) an old, wrinkled man, angry and estranged from his son, Robert. Robert is a journalist researching the life of Escrivá (Charlie Cox). In the course of his reasearch, Robert learns more than he expected about the sins of his father and is forced to face his own demons. These internal struggles are what is referred to by the titular dragons. Joffé makes clear that although they are not fire-breathing, internal demons can be just as perilous.

The phrase “There be dragons” is a loose translation from the Latin Hic suntdracones, which appeared on ancient maps to warn travelers of potential dangers in unexplored waters. Although the title is hard to parse and sounds more like the name of a sword-filled fantasy flick than a fictionalized historical drama involving the Spanish Civil War and a saint, the message is an apt one for this film, thick with symbolism.

Manolo is the film’s most conflicted character and often represents humankind at its most fearful or selfish. Yet his name is the Spanish equivalent of Emmanuel, “God with us,” which shows how close to him God actually is despite his sins. Mirrors and lenses play a significant role in the film’s imagery. Often, the aged Manolo is seen first through a distorted reflection, as if to demonstrate the change that takes place over a lifetime of violence and regret and the difficulty he has seeing himself clearly.

Using many long, fluid takes, the narrative moves back and forth between Robert’s present-day storyline and scenes from the lives of Manolo and Escrivá as young men. The bulk of the story occurs in 1930s Spain, then a country in the midst of civil war. Escrivá serves as a priest during a time when many Communist rebels saw the clergy as part of a system that caused only pain and despair. Despite the hostility, Escrivá pushes on and tries to continue “God’s work” by building the first Opus Dei community.

Years later, the real-life Escrivá would encourage Catholics to to lead a rebellion of a different sort: “But you and I, we have to be rebels, the kind that give solutions, solutions based on justice and charity, Christian solutions,” he said. In the film, Escrivá’s attempts to live out this advice in his own time are met with suspicion and anger by many. Even his fellow Opus Dei members, a cheerful bunch, criticize Escrivá’s pleas to refrain from retaliation against the persecution. The surrounding tensions are evident as a priest is hunted down and killed before his eyes. Manolo, on the other hand, takes up as a Fascist spy among the Communists and has trouble straddling the two worlds.

Joffé looks closely at the issues and emotions that divide us, the paths that separate us, those that create internal and external wars. But he does not leave viewers without a remedy. Forgiveness and reconciliation are prevalent themes, even in the most difficult of circumstances. And nearly all the characters must decide whether or not to forgive themselves and those who have hurt them.

Just as perspective plays a key role in the lives of the characters, it plays a role in the viewer’s experience as well. Those viewers who are already supportive of Opus Dei and Escrivá will likely have few complaints about the portrayal of either. The Opus Dei of the film is small, with less than a dozen members, which reflects the slow start of a group, now a prelature, that claims close to 90,000 members today. There are no signs of the controversies to come and, thankfully, no references to any albino monks. Those with skepticism toward Escrivá might see the film as an entry point for learning more about the saint and his early motivations and a chance to examine the film’s larger themes.

Escrivá’s real-life emphasis on the holiness of ordinary life is not lost in the film. It portrays both the priesthood and the lay vocation as valid and holy, showing the joys and struggles of each. When Manolo dismisses his time in the seminary, saying “I wasn’t priest material,” Escrivá replies, “That doesn’t mean you’re not saint material.” Escrivá is extraordinarily conscious of his own strengths and weaknesses and, in one scene, cheerfully admits his failed attempts to teach Latin and trades tasks with a fellow Opus Dei member, handing over his chalk and taking up the washing of a large stack of pans.

The alleged faults of Escrivá—temper and vanity—are not portrayed, nor are common criticisms of him directly addressed—like his supposed sympathies for Francisco Franco. And despite Escrivá’s alleged distaste for the changes that accompanied the Second Vatican Council, the early days of Opus Dei, as shown in the film, seem to exemplify a Vatican-II mentality, encouraging the full, conscious and active participation of the laity.

Escrivá works diligently to keep peace within his small community. When Escrivá himself grows angry at the Communists who have killed a fellow priest, his guilt over this anger is such that in a brief but difficult scene, he uses self-flagellation during prayer to show his repentance.

Yet Escriva’s story is only one portion of the film. Every scene involving Manolo and Ildiko (the stunning Olga Kurylenko), a rebel, propels the film forward. Both actors are as beautiful as their characters are conflicted. The battle scenes are compelling without being graphic or gratuitous. And Unax Ugalde is more than convincing in his role as the rebel leader Pedro.

Roberto’s internal battles in the film often mirror the physical ones of the war. But when placed side by side, the pace of his interior conflict does not always keep up with the fight scenes and chase scenes involving Manolo and Escrivá.

As in Joffé’s earlier film “The Mission” (1986), about Jesuits in South America, the characters in “Dragons” face the challenges of war and choose to fight their battles, both interior and exterior, using very different methods. Manolo recoils from suffering and turns away from the support of others, isolating himself, while Escrivá does his best to accept his struggle, finding refuge from it in community, service to others and faith.

Both “Dragons” and “The Mission” are aimed more at achieving an emotional impact than at historical accuracy. Still, both offer enough real history to pique the interest of viewers and inspire them to learn more about the events described, and enough spiritual material to enable viewers to think more deeply about their own choices and spiritual paths.

Even as he encourages others, Escrivá sometimes has difficulty making sense of his world. He hides in an insane asylum to escape persecution, and there he is counseled by an insane woman, who complains that God stays silent. It seems the priest might be on the verge of believing this himself until he receives a sign. In the end, the character of Escrivá, though faced at times with deep doubts and internal struggles, is more accessible because of these struggles.

In the church today it is easy to lionize those whom we admire or to write off those whose spirituality does not resonate with our own. But after watching “Dragons” or “The Mission,” Catholics may find reasons to rethink their prejudices.

In one of the film’s final scenes, Escrivá is fleeing with friends through the mountains to a safer region in an attempt to escape from the civil war’s violent anticlericalism. But in the midst of the journey he suffers deep pangs of guilt for leaving his loved ones behind. Alone, he spends time praying and receives the sign he needs. Returning to the group, he grabs a cup of coffee and says, “Haven’t we further to climb?” Their answer is yes, a response conveyed not with words but with actions. Step after step, they move forward together.

Read an interview with director Roland Joffé.

alpha kilotango
6 years 2 months ago
If the plan is to re-invent a new, fictionalized “saint”, that is in line with Christ’s teaching, I am all for it (Btw, this movie was entirely financed by “Opus Dei” members, an “Opus Dei” priest was on the set to make sure all was ok).

But underneath the veneer of Catholicism lies, in Escriva’s spirituality, a Gnostic self-serving theology of cheating, mixed in with navel-gazing pantheism that has little to do with Christianity, imo. Work is important, always was (cf St Paul), but not most important, contrary to Escriva’s dogma. Prayer is the most important, as Christ taught Marta. St Benedict defined Opus Dei as prayer, in direct opposition to human work.

And what about this “holiness” accessible to “every one”. Again, Christ Salvation is what counts and is for every one, since the moment He died on the Cross. But according to Escriva “The standard of holiness that God asks of us is determined by these three points: Holy intransigence, holy coercion and holy shamelessness.”(“The Way, maxim 387”; where in the Bible does that come from??)

OD tried to spread this “holy shamelessness” when in power during Pope JP2. In 1983, the whole saint approval process was undermined by the removal of the office of Promoter of Faith. This was done a year after Escrica’s beatification candidature was presented, so it could go ahead unchecked. This “holy shamelessness” explains in large part attitudes that permeated the Curia and allowed abuse of children to also go unchecked. Instead, this “shamelessness” protected those that brought “good fruits” (e.g. $$$), like Fr Maciel. Just look at statements and lack of action by OD members such as Cardinal Herranz, or spokesperson Navarro Valls. This new version of casuistry explains in large part the mess the Catholic Church is in now (no wonder Pope Innocent XI was removed from the Vatican recently). But there is nothing like a little fictional propaganda to try to fix things.
david power
6 years 2 months ago
Very good review of the movie Kerry.

@Tom,I know many people in Opus Dei and I promise you they would pray you under the table any day of the week.
No priest from Opus Dei to my knowledge was involved in pedophilia.Holy Shamelessnes is nothing like you portray it to be and instead asks for a lively honesty.St Josemaria and Opus Dei are not perfect but your only contact with either has been very limited.
alpha kilotango
6 years 2 months ago
David, I had enough contact with this group in the past.
Yes, it is true that allegations of abuse are rare. It is sad that an order that has not allegedly abused children physically is considered "heroic". This does not excuse their active part in the abuse cover up during the time of JP2, despite positions of power. In the last few years they have shown (some) ability to make (some) changes. Lets hope this continues for the better, and that they adopt: “The standard of Holiness that God asks of us is determined by these seven Virtues: Holy Love, Holy Faith, Holy Hope, Holy Prudence, Holy Justice, Holy Temperance and Holy Fortitude”. Lets hope they return the term "Opus Dei" to what it is has meant for more then 1000 years: "Prayer Life of the Church". Instead, they gave a new meaning: “work to make money that you will give all to the “movement”, this is the only way to really become “holy””. This is a good example of cult-like loading of language technique, where one changes meaning of established terms, to better control members to the cult’s advantage.
david power
6 years 2 months ago

I am not asking for a rare allegation against this group but only one.
Can you point to one bishop or Priest involved in the cover-up of pedophilia?.If not then you are being slanderous and breaking the 2000 year christian law of not bearing false witness.
On Prayer,I think you should read the letters of St Ignatius where the Jesuit founder completely destroys your view on the subject.
In All Things was the work of and charism of St Ignatius and his letters explain why.
I agree that to be involved in the last Papacy should be a black mark against anybody , and Opus dei need to accept criticism but this is a group loved and approved by at least 5 Popes and approved by the Magisterium.If you are of a different opinion and continue to call them a cult then maybe you are unaware of How the church works.Bishop Morris will tell you.
alpha kilotango
6 years 2 months ago
1) Navarro Valls repeatedly blocked question about Father Maciel from Harford Courant reporters Berry and Renner in 1997.
2) Cardinal Herranz, who was head of the interpretation of legislative texts (Vatican attorney general), said in an interview to the New York Times in 2002, that he was against Bishops reporting abuse, and that this was all media sensationalisms.
3) Over the last 18 months, OD prominent members have repeatedly made retrograde comments about abuse, including Fr Wauck, Navaro Valls (again), Mr Gotti Tedeschi. They were even out of sink with the Pope’s much more contrite statements.
4) Just a few months ago, OD thinker Vittorio Messori said about the Berlusconi scandal, which involves underage prostitutions: “A politician that uses prostitutes, but makes good laws, is surely better then a good Catholic who makes laws contrary to the Church.”
alpha kilotango
6 years 2 months ago
BTW, I don’t know about others, but I am tired of people using as argument “but the Pope loves us”. This is what the Macielistas used for decades. Pope JP2 called Maciel an “efficacious guide of youth”. Now we know that, oops, this was a little “mistake”. This argument is a great cover, but God gave us a conscience, and did not ask us to abdicate it. Thanks to OD downgrading of the saint approval process, the argument "...but, but he is a saint" no longer works either … Escriva wanted to make “holiness” ordinary, he achieved this, but not the way he intended. Perhaps this is a good thing. True Saints should be obvious to all, and not need $$$ millions to pay for legions of canon lawyers, undermine the entire system, etc..
david power
6 years 2 months ago

I will have to check up on those comments.Comments however are still not a cover-up.In the case of Navarro-Valls I agree with you.He was kneedeep in the corrupt outlook of the old Pope.
He is one member not the entire organization.What I wrote was that 5 popes have judged the teaching of Opus Dei not to be contrary to catholic teaching.
There was an investigation in the 40's under Pope Pacelli and they were given the green light.
The spirituality of Opus Dei is not for me and I could give many criticisms but I think you are very one-sided in your view.
It was Pope John Paul who started the Saint factory not Opus Dei. I agree one hundred percent about the "Pope loves us" argument.BTW most catholics of a conservative inclination were well behind the Pope in terms of contrition. In defense of Navarro-VALLS maybe the Pope told him to not say anthing or else Sodano.Then he would be going against higher authority for the sake of conscience.Once again ,not everybody is a Bishop Morris.
alpha kilotango
6 years 2 months ago
..but it the Church is to going to function by Faith and Reason”, then the office of Promoter of Faith should be restored, instead of paying for clever $35 million saintfomercials..
david power
6 years 2 months ago

In the previous message I gave another bad argument.There was an investigation under a previous Pope should not satisfy anybody.
The Church has been run under a perverse logic for a long time,and I dont believe it will be Opus Dei that will have the courage to change that.However, I think we should see the movie first and then decide.If you have already made up your mind the arguments for or against are useless.

Take care
alpha kilotango
6 years 2 months ago
“John Paul who started the Saint factory not Opus Dei”
Not sure this is entirely true. The time line indicates otherwise. Canons regulating to office of Promoter of Faith were removed in 1983. This was a year after the start of Escriva’s beatification process, and the year Cardinal Herranz became secretary of the office for legislative texts. Once the office of Promoter of Faith was removed, this allowed for the saint making process to go full steam ahead (for the record, I admire some of the new saints, I still admire JP2 accomplishments, just hope that “Faith and Reason” is no just talk; I admire less people that took advantage of JP2 and now are covering up their tracks..)
david power
6 years 2 months ago
Papal ignorance is the same level as "The Pope loves him".Who is covering their tracks....?
alpha kilotango
6 years 2 months ago
David, not sure why JP2 was in denial, but the curia culture under him was far from “liberal”, in fact it was “conservative”, yet was, and still is, involved in the cover-up and now, covering of own tracks. This film is just one part of this tactic, imo, a smoke screen. You mentioned Bishop Morris, I don’t agree with what he says, but marriage of clergy is a rather innocuous discussion compared to shuffling of abusing clergy, yet he gets immediately canned, but people like Maciel got a pass for ½ century. Coming back to OD, the same is true. When relatively moderate theologians like Sobrino spoke about the option of the poor, these were also immediately shut up. Yet, even though Escriva’s “theology”, to me, is as un-Christian as the most extremes forms of left liberation theology, he got to be “a saint”. Just because his scientology cult-like structure brings $$$. Like the Kiko “secret catechism” in Spain, these new extreme right “liberation theologies” are being forced down the throats of all of us by the current Vatican crew. This is not orthodoxy but self serving 20th century modernism disguised as pseudo-orthodoxy, at the service of the few with $$$ and their sycophants. Christian virtues are neither “liberal” or “conservative”.
david power
6 years 2 months ago
we are more or less on the same page.The things you have said,I have said in far harsher language here on America.I know people in the Neocats and Opus Dei and could tell you stories that would make Steven King look a novice but also believe that there is great good in both.
I would only say "Forgive them for they know not what they do".There is an innocence to all heresy and that which is backed by a charismatic Pope is all the more enticing.
You haPaddve no idea how many friends I have lost over the fact of pedophilia. If a person does not show a true disgust and abhorrence for it I cannot consider them of Christ.
I have also seen people from Opus Dei go the distance over pedophilia,that is to speak honestly and without hedging their bets and for that I am inspired.I spare nothing in my speech on this matter.
Paedophilia was the challenge of the last few decades ,as an Irishman I know this.Those who ducked that challenge should never be considered holy.Those whose ideals put image above children should be seen for what they are.
alpha kilotango
6 years 2 months ago
Sorry to hear about your friends. Hopefully, one way or the other, things will get better. At least we have the Bible and the Sacraments. Lots of payers. Peace.
alpha kilotango
6 years 2 months ago
Dear Tim
Sorry, but to be honest, I am not sure I want my full name posted.
I have friends and family involved (some quite adversely) in OD.
Contrary to the film, OD is not known to be very "forgiving".
These relatives and friends have suffered enough.
I am emailing you my full contact, if there is any need.
PS: sorry for the typos in the above posts (not good...for Jesuit magazine!)
Leonard Villa
6 years 2 months ago

Would it be considered a "fault" if St. Josemaria had sympathy for the Republicans?  I imagine since the Falangists were not shooting priests and desecrating churches with Soviet orchestration there might be some sympathy for them. It makes sense to favor someone who is not seeking to wipe you out. There is also the Masonic connection with the Republican war on the Church and the war against the Church in Mexico in the 20's: birds of a feather.   There needs to be more focus on the Masonic impresarios in the drama of the Spanish Civil War.

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