Roland Joffe’s newest film, “There Be Dragons” takes place during the Spanish Civil War. The battle scenes are powerful, but Joffe takes care not to neglect the internal struggles of his characters. A character based on St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, features prominently in the film, but Joffe, best known for his work on “The Missions” and “The Killing Fields,” says that the story he sought to capture was a larger one of love and forgiveness. Joffe answered questions by e-mail, tackling topics ranging from Christian films to his own upbringing and religious questions.
What attracted you to creating a film depicting Josemaria Escriva?
Josemaria once said that “God could be found in the everyday.”...He thought that God can be found in the "everyday" of all of our lives, no matter what we do—we didn’t have to be a priest to be find God. Those very simple words struck me as profoundly deep.
Josemaria also showed a profound intellectual honesty. He respected what it meant to be a human being. Perhaps he would have called it being honest with God. Someone once asked Josemaria if we should "accept each person fully even if they are wrong." Josemaria said, "Yes! Even when they’re wrong." That respect and acceptance of all human beings was another reason I was attracted to doing this film.
Escriva is a controversial figure in some circles, and some people don't believe he should have been canonized. Did this color your portrayal of him in the film?
I didn’t want the film simply to be about the “life of a saint.” I thought it would be dangerous to try to make Josemaria’s life abstract, an overly simplified version of the man he was—what seems to be a common betrayal of many of the saints when I’ve read about their lives. I decided I must honor the man of Josemaria and the world he lived in with honesty. I had to ask myself: “What kind of world did Josemaria find himself in?“
The balance, then, becomes very important. I didn’t want to make the film and say: "Look how important Josemaria is, and look what lessons there are to be learned here." What I want the audience to do is to examine the tapestry that is this man's life. If you extract only certain parts of his life, you’d only be extracting threads, and you would lose the context of what really made this man the person he was.
Would you describe "Dragons" as a Christian film?
The movie is about all of us. It’s about finding our dragons. Our dragons reside in those "uncharted" parts of ourselves we are worried about voyaging into. Rumor has it that on old maps, map makers would inscribe “There Be Dragons" on those places where no one had yet ventured. These areas were unexplored. They were perhaps dangerous, perhaps revealing, perhaps uplifting, and even inspiring. I thought that was rather interesting.
The dragon is a very extraordinary creature because it’s both a creature of terror, and a creature of hope and good luck. And that, to me, says something quite interesting about our darker sides, about what many call "sin." I don’t believe there’s a need to be frightened of the darker side; it may be a gateway to bliss.
In a way, I do think that Christ is in this film. I don't mean that in a grandiosely religious way. This is a movie about redemptive suffering, and Christ lived his life in that way. And this understanding in Christianity is remarkable. Whatever my personal beliefs about religion may be, and my personal agnosticism, I can't refute the extraordinary creative and redemptive power of that.
You've tackled the topic of Catholicism in your film "The Mission,"  and now again in "There Be Dragons." Does making movies that include strong religious themes or characters present any unique challenges?
There’s a frailty of human beings in that we so strongly desire to be loved and yet at the same time, in the most extraordinary and magical way, we are capable of providing that love to others. We may be the authors of our salvation...[yet] we will only [achieve salvation] when we are aware that we also are the authors of our own loss of salvation. There’s a danger when we start seeing ourselves as self-generating self-creators. It would create a terrible dilemma about our own nature. It would be opposed to an understanding of what it is to be a fully "human" being. These films present an opportunity to really explore that part of our humanity.
What unique perspective are you able to bring to the film as a "wobbly agnostic," as you've described yourself?
The questions contained in religion are unavoidable. I think religion is the incarnation of questioning. One of the things I learned, at a very early age, as I traveled and experienced different cultures, was that we all have the same questions. I haven’t been to any culture—and I have been to quite a few—where the questions are not profound and the same: “What do I mean? Why do I die? Why does love not make everything right? What’s hate?” Each culture has a different set of answers to those things.
The truth, it seems to me, about any religion that's worthwhile, is that it connects to something essentially fundamental about what it is to be a human being. It allows you to either explore that in a structured way or in a less structured way. So, I don't think that any human being...can avoid the questions that are posed by religion. In a way, living life is religion.
The characters in "Dragons" struggle with both internal and external battles. Which is more difficult to portray in a compelling manner on screen?
I wanted every character to be slightly off-center and slightly vulnerable. I wanted people to concentrate on what was going on inside—not to be sucked into the "external." We spend too much time looking at the externals and too much time balancing the relationship between the personal and the public. These days, people’s private lives are being put on Twitter and Facebook.
I wanted to show characters that were always leading people back to the central importance of human acts, and what those acts meant in a compelling and emotional way. This internal battle is the key. How suffering is passed, from one person to another; taking on the burden of other people's pain—these are the struggles I wished to explore.
Reconciliation and forgiveness are major themes of the film. Can you describe a time in your own life in which you found it difficult to forgive someone or when you found it difficult to ask forgiveness from another?
I was not raised by my biological mother. I had only seen her twice in my life since I was only 13 months old. I received a phone call recently from someone who said that my mother wanted to get in touch with me. I was a bit shocked at what rose up inside me. It was a voice said something like, “Never! Why should I speak with her? She’s done nothing for my family and nothing for me.”
As a child, I had felt as though she had abandoned me in a way that was profoundly upsetting. Of course as a child I didn’t understand why she did what she did. But I decided to call her. A voice came out of me that said, "I just want you to know that I’ve had a rather wonderful life. And therefore the mistake that happened between us doesn’t really matter. Because it didn’t deprive me of love, it hasn’t deprived me of a family. In which case, I have to thank you. Because I would never have had that without you. And because I never would have had that without you, I love you."
What do you hope that people will take away from the film?
I hope, like any good story, it is not a wagging finger. Rather I hope it plunges the audience into a life-moment—where they can see and experience what the constituent parts of that moment are. The absolute key then is: will the audience have feeling in those moments? If there’s no feeling from the audience, then it's just an intellectual exercise and there’s nothing. If the audience has fear that forgiveness might not be there, then the film has made that connection with the audience, and they've really understood it.