Those who know of St. Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei, only through photographs or through his books such as “The Way” or, heaven forbid, through the depiction in “The Da Vinci Code” of the organization he founded, have a chance to see the saint spring to life in a film debuting May 6.
Filmed in Spain and Argentina under the skillful direction of Roland Joffé (“The Mission”) “There Be Dragons” charts the dramatically different paths of two men — Escrivá (Charlie Cox), who was canonized in 2002, and Manolo Torres (Wes Bentley), a bitter man who is estranged from his son, Robert — in the buildup to and during Spain’s 1936-39 Civil War.
Told mainly through flashbacks, the film begins in 1982, when Robert, a journalist, has been assigned to write a book about Escrivá, who died in 1975. Through this assignment, he learns about his father’s early life — including his connection to the saint — and finds the answers to why their relationship was so fractured.
Childhood friends Manolo and Josemaría lose touch when Manolo’s father forces him to rupture their friendship after Josemaría’s father falls on financial misfortune after his chocolate factory closes (in reality, Jose Escrivá owned a textile business; the film is inspired by true events, but takes artistic license with some elements of the saint’s story). The two are briefly and unhappily reunited at seminary before Manolo leaves “to live in the real world,” eventually rejecting the faith as “sentimental dribble.”
Manolo joins in the civil war as a Nationalist spy, infiltrating the Republican revolutionaries, but it seems that he’s truly on only one side — his own. While with the revolutionaries, he falls for a beautiful Hungarian fighter, Ildiko (Olga Kurylenko), who wisely senses that he’s a troubled soul and rebuffs his advances.
Josemaría, meanwhile, continues his priestly pursuits, eventually finding inspiration for Opus Dei after recalling a visit to his father’s chocolate factory, where he learned that a “poor little ordinary bean” can become something glorious through “hard work, devotion and love.” Just like that lowly little cocoa bean, so, too, can people of all walks of life and all occupations grow in holiness.
Through those insights, he begins Opus Dei, “the Work of God,” and opens a school.
He continues his ministry even as the threats to clergy from Republican forces rise. In one harrowing scene, Josemaría rescues the Blessed Sacrament and narrowly escapes as a group of revolutionaries trash a church, only to be surrounded by more militiamen on a train platform. A porter rescues him from the threatening crowd, although it is obvious that the porter’s sympathies lie with the revolutionaries.
Moviegoers witness Josemaría’s many efforts to tend to his flock (even hearing confessions during an outing to the zoo), despite the increasingly desperate situation in Madrid, and his many near misses at being caught.
Perhaps because these scenes are based on actual events in the saint’s life (albeit with artistic license), while Manolo is a fictional character who was inspired by people Escrivá knew during the war, the film is at its strongest when depicting Escrivá’s efforts to stay alive, first hiding in Madrid, staying at a mental health facility, then departing on a journey over the Pyrenees (where, unbeknownst to him and his fellow travelers, he is at risk of being killed by one of Manolo’s bullets).
British actor Cox (“Stardust”) could have played Josemaría as a one-note do-gooder, but instead he imbues the young priest with a firm, but gentle resolve — and a sense of humor. In one scene, he tells a Jewish patient he is visiting in a hospital ward (who also happens to be the former employee of this father’s who told him about the cocoa bean) that “You know, the love of my life is Jewish.”
Those fearing a “Da Vinci Code”-style hit job on St. Josemaría Escrivá should have no fear. His story is told reverently, and Opus Dei cooperated with the filming of the movie, which had an Opus Dei priest, Father John Wauck, as its adviser.
Strong sense of family
While “There Be Dragons” certainly contains intense scenes of combat, it is much more than a war movie in the traditional sense.
In a very strong way, it is about family, and the important role those relationships can shape our lives. Manolo’s father can provide plenty of material comfort to this son, but he cares only about social position and being on the winning side. Josemaría’s parents, while suffering financial ruin and the loss of two children, remain strong in their faith, even though his father has misgivings about Josemaría’s entry into the seminary.
Manolo, with his lack of moral anchor, leads a life of turmoil, only to end up estranged from his son, to whom he can’t express love.
Josemaría, on the other hand, is surrounded by loving family — both biological relations and members of Opus Dei — who risk their lives with him as he flees to safety.
Yet, as the film makes clear, there is still a chance for Manolo and Robert to reconcile and find healing, even as Manolo lies in a hospital bed, seemingly moments away from death.
Sarah Hayes is OSV presentation editor.
There Be Dragons