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There Be Dragons - Film Review by Brendan O'Regan

This is a film based around the Spanish Civil War and the early life of St Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei. It is directed by Roland Joffé, famous for films like The Mission and The Killing Fields.

This isn't in quite the same style - at times there is a broad canvas, but this is also a very personal story. It's not an apologia for Opus Dei , or a hatchet job like the portrayal in The Da Vinci Code. The film is remarkably balanced in the way it presents the civil war - it wouldn't make you change sides, but might get you to question the "side" you are on - this question "Which side are you on?" runs through the film, but perhaps the answer is that there is another way - the way of peace and forgiveness. Biopics of saints pose lots of challenges - there are artistic and spiritual issues to take into account.

There Be Dragons only occasionally gets a little preachy, but the attention is diffused by focussing on three inter-connected stories - that of Escriva, the story of the civil war, seen mainly through the eyes of the leftist resistance, and a modern story about a young journalist researching Escriva, who stumbles across some skeletons (or dragons!) in his own family cupboard. His relationship with his father is quite touching, and contrasts nicely with Escriva's relationship with his own father and indeed his Heavenly Father. The peace and forgiveness theme is strong in all plot strands, and carries an important message for conflict zones today. However it is personal and very human rather than heavy handed. And there's plenty going on in the parallel plots so that it never gets bogged down in chunky dialogue.

The film scores on many levels - acting in the main roles is excellent - Charley Cox is appealing as the young priest Escriva, enthusiastic about his vocation and the new movement, disturbed about all the political upheaval and conflicted as to how to react when priests are being targeted by the leftists - for example he is reluctant not to wear clerical garb or to flee the country. I loved some of the set pieces - a really unexpected vision of Jesus in his woodshop in Nazareth (see clip above), a clandestine Confession scene in the zoo, scenes of the Eucharist being celebrated in hiding, a conflict among the Opus Dei members as to how to react when a priest is shot dead, a fascinating yet disturbing conversation between himself and a young inmate in an asylum where he is hiding, another scene where Escriva finds spiritual guidance in a ruined church, a moving deathbed scene with an old Jewish man.

The film abounds with symbolism - a broken statue in that ruined church, the frequent presence of the monstrance, a window being cleaned suggesting insight and of course the central metaphor of the dragons.

There are some negatives - I would have preferred to see the film in Spanish with English subtitles rather than characters speaking English with Spanish accents. Some of minor characters are not as well fleshed out as I would have liked. There's a brief and subtle flagellation scene that is going to cause problems - the film is honest to include it, and in its context it is linked to the scourging of Christ at the pillar, and to Escriva's efforts to control his anger especially after the priest-shooting that he witnesses. But this sis o far from modern religious sensibilities that it may well limit the film's appeal. All in all however it is thought-provoking, poetic at times, challenging and occasionally disturbing, moving and above all engrossing.

There Be Dragons can be added to a slowly growing canon of films that take religion faith seriously, and even more important for our times it presents an intriguing role model of a priest who is not some sort of Hollywood caricature.