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 sunt dracones, 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.