By Elizabeth Lev
ROME, FEB. 24, 2011 (Zenit.org).- In the Middle Ages, mapmakers, faced with uncharted areas, labeled the unexplored lands “hic sunt dragones” — here be dragons. While satellite tracking may have removed the geographical unknown, there are still many mysterious paths in the journey of life, where events and choices lead one out of what we blithely call today our “comfort zone.”
British film director Roland Joffé, best known for his epic work in “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission,” explores the labyrinthine ways of conflict, estrangement, forgiveness and holiness in his new film “There Be Dragons.” The film was screened this week in Rome, allowing a few fortunate viewers to see it before the official release date of May 6.
“There Be Dragons” weaves together many threads of personal stories from both the early and late 20th century. In part, it is the story from 1982 of a journalist trying to write a book on the life of St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, while he struggles in his relationship with his estranged father who knew St. Josemaría in his youth. The other and far more compelling story is that of young Escrivá and his friend Manolo Torres, (the journalist’s father), and the two very divergent paths their lives take.
The film is set during the Spanish Civil War, but mercifully the director merely uses the war as a backdrop, rather than concerning himself with presenting the sides of the battle. This setting where brother kills brother and atrocities escalate enhances the poignancy of these individual stories.
Torres and Escrivá provide the spark for this film. They meet as children in a near collision between Torres’ car and Escrivá’s horse and carriage. The two, briefly friends, will meet again in seminary but every time their paths cross, the tension increases. Torres will choose a self-serving path that will alienate him from all love, while Josemaría will choose a path of dedicating himself completely to love.
Each man’s choice is wrought with dangers and setbacks, but as far apart as they drift, the hope of an ultimate convergence is always present.
Joffé presents the not-so-rosy dawn of modernization: Tradition clashes with progress, the past wrestling with the present, religion versus the republic. The divisions grow so sharp that the film opens with the words: “One had to either swear on the Bible … or spit on it.”
The journalist is distant from faith, yet interested in its pull. He seems to mirror the journey of the director himself, a self-declared “wobbly agnostic,” who nevertheless declared in an earlier interview that he wanted to make a film “that took religion seriously on its own terms and didn’t play a game where one approached religion denying its validity.”
He presents honestly and respectfully many different points of view, from the revolutionary whose faith is in his nation, to a young woman with a love/hate relationship with God, a Jewish man who feels the call to Christianity, and an agnostic who doesn’t want to have to confront the question of faith.
Joffé, however, is particularly fascinated by the Christian concept of forgiveness. He dwells on the heroism that enables forgiving even the most heinous of deeds and the capacity for good to come out evil. As St. Josemaría preaches and practices forgiveness, he appears more courageous than the rebels facing bullets and beatings. Christ’s mandate to forgive, which seems so unpalatable to so many, through the lens of Joffé is the greatest and most noble act of all.
In his rendering of St. Josemaría Escrivá, Joffé paints a new kind of hero, not a muscle-bound stoic who has been hardened by life into a perpetual scowl, but a joyous leader whose serenity draws others to his path. As played by Charlie Cox, Escrivá almost always has a smile on his lips. In the times of hardship, he may grow graver but the warm gentleness remains at a simmer under a somber surface. In the dénouement of the film, Josemaría grows truly sad, and it is the most frightening moment of the film. The viewer is less worried about his physical safety than his loss of joy in his work.
The movie revels in the simple things of life: a worn shoe, a cocoa bean, or a humble worker, and how each in its own way reveals God’s greatness.
Joffé indulges in quite a few cinematic artsy moments. Several times the art history major in me felt like I should be taking notes for a visual metaphor class. These moments can be distracting, as can the premise of moving back and forth between 1936 and 1982, but the strong underlying themes anchor the story and keep one’s attention throughout.
While not as visually sumptuous as “The Mission,” “There Be Dragons” offers the drama of war and intense loves and hatreds with the uplifting balm of hope and redemption.
Plus, who can fail to love a movie that compellingly argues holiness is like chocolate?
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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at [email protected]