Roland Joffé’s new movie, There Be Dragons, is about half a good movie. What is good is so good that it makes the bad parts doubly frustrating.
Let’s start with the good. The best part was, happily, Charlie Cox, who plays Opus Dei’s founder, Josemaria Escriva. Knowing very little about the actual man, I had none of the mental baggage that can trouble a fan (“That’s not how I pictured Mr. Tumnus!”). The Fr. Josemaria he portrays is a strong, happy, humorous man who is not like other men. When he commands a room with quiet authority, you feel it. Despite the drama that surrounds him, his actions are not hammy or melodramatic. You care about him, and want him to succeed. When he learns to love everyone he meets, you believe it, and you feel glad that you met him, even if only on screen through an actor. There are several original and memorable scenes which demonstrate the humanity, holiness, and appeal of the man.
When he’s not on screen, however, the movie is kind of a mess. The first half hour or so is so cluttered with flashbacks, flash forwards, voice overs, text explanations, and a panoply of cinematic hokeyness, it’s a struggle just to figure out what story is being told.
I know what happened here. The director knew he had a good story on his hands: Josemaria Escriva was an amazing guy living in amazing times. But if you just do a biopic of a Catholic boy who becomes a priest and starts a religious movement, who’s going to watch it? So they decided to give the story some theatrical heft by telling two stories simultaneously: Josemaria and his onetime friend, Manolo Torres, who works as a fascist government mole in the trenches with the communist rebels. But that’s not all: the dual story is being uncovered by the alienated son of Manolo, who is writing a book about Josemaria, who was friends with Manolo, who is telling his son not to write the book, who is writing it because he’s mad at his father, who is mad at Josemaria because he’s . . . if this is making any sense, I’m telling it wrong.
Any time Manolo, or his son, or Manolo’s rebel beloved, or the beloved’s lover are on screen, the movie descends into — how do you say? – silliness. The characters are paper thin, the dialog is contrived, the voice overs never clarify anything, and the acting stinks. Again, I think I know what happened: the director has seen one to many Francis Ford Coppola movies, and was desperate to do the whole “violence and sacraments” juxtaposition thing. A rosary next to a pistol! A shattered statue of Mary amid the rubble of war! An angel amid the lunatics in the asylum! Or is it a devil! I know it’s not fair to say, “This is no Godfather,” but what can I say? Coppola pulled it off; this guy didn’t. The effect is just squirmfully corny. You really can’t zoom in on someone’s eyes, and then turn the screen into a swirling, glowing snowglobe to signify that God Is Talking. You just can’t. I, the marginally sophisticated viewer, will not stand for it.
At the same time, so many moments that could have been incredibly powerful cinema are just squandered. For example: the sniper is on the hillside, squinting through his gunsight at Josemaria and his friends below as they celebrate a makeshift Mass during their perilous escape in the middle of the Pyrenees. That could have been a gorgeous scene. With a little movement by the camera, it could have been the pivotal point — could have carried the weight of the whole movie. Instead, they just kind of . . . filmed it: here’s the sniper, here’s the priest. Bang! Next scene. So frustrating.
At a certain point in the movie, I felt as if I was watching a slide show or an especially melodramatic Powerpoint presentation which covered the plot, more than an actual story. There was no rhythm to the way it was told, just lots of stopping and starting — which isn’t the same. There was no deeper meaning to the double stories, just added complexity — which isn’t the same. There were no deeper themes of fatherhood and faith and forgiveness, just lots of talking about those things — which isn’t the same. They could have cut thirty minutes and half the characters without losing anything.
Well, now I feel like a jerk. This was a very sincere movie, and believe it or not, I still recommend it. It made me interested in Josemaria Escriva — I just wish they had stuck with him more, and skipped all the tacked-on extras of the other plot. I think high school students and younger would probably be pretty impressed by this movie, and it would make a great introduction to the saint for a confirmation class. I can see someone leaving the theater inspired and encouraged by what happened on the screen. As I said, the good parts (which occur mostly in the middle third of this two-hour film) are quite good. The bad parts aren’t unwatchable so much as frustrating: you keep thinking how much better it could have been.
I guess I’m just not willing to go whole hog and rave about it, just because it presents Catholics in a good light and had a budget of more than $750. I’m awfully, awfully tired of Catholics being the boogeyman in popular culture, but I’m also awfully, awfully tired of being told that everything that’s wholesome is a MUST SEE, a piece of CINEMATIC BRILLIANCE that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE, and is about FIREMEN. So, this movie was okay. I liked it. But it wasn’t an especially good movie.
It was extremely refreshing to see the Catholic faith represented as something that inspires generosity, courage, manliness, and heroism. I just wish that someone had been inspired to edit this movie, and heavily.
You can see the official trailer here.