There Be Dragons, a visually stunning, undeniably intriguing saga about a controversial Catholic saint. The film, released nationwide by Samuel Goldwyn Films today, is being heavily promoted among clergy and church groups, à la The Passion of the Christ.
Josemaria Escriva (played here by Charlie Cox, best known from Stardust and the Heath Ledger-starrer Casanova) was a young priest during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930's. He received a vision that showed him one didn't have to become a member of the clergy or live an overtly religious life to do God's will in one's life. Escriva subsequently founded Opus Dei, Latin for "Work of God," which is probably best known among moviegoers as the conspiratorial, murderous order depicted in The Da Vinci Code. While Escriva is shown flagellating himself in one scene in There Be Dragons, not unlike the self-abusing albino monk played by Paul Bettany in Ron Howard's 2006 movie, the resemblances pretty much stop there. Escriva, who died in 1975, was canonized as "the saint of the ordinary" in 2002 by Pope John Paul II (who was just beatified himself). Today, Opus Dei counts 90,000 members worldwide, including the new Archbishop of Los Angeles and two of this film's producers.
To its credit, Joffe's screenplay takes as much inspiration from Oscar Wilde's famous (and truthful) quote, "Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future" as it does Escriva's biography. There Be Dragons features a decades-spanning mystery as its main storyline. An investigative journalist (played by Dougray Scott of Mission: Impossible II and Desperate Housewives, among other credits) is writing a book about Escriva, whom his elderly father knew personally as a young man. Escriva and the writer's father, Manolo (a strong turn by American Beauty's Wes Bentley), were fellow seminarians for a time and became close friends. They parted ways, however, when Manolo enlisted in the war effort.
While Escriva is founding Opus Dei, Manolo becomes enmeshed in a love triangle between himself, his military leader (Rodrigo Santoro of 300 and I Love You Phillip Morris) and a lovely Hungarian revolutionary played by recent Bond girl Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace). Secrets are buried and both friendship and faith become tested in these characters' wake.
There Be Dragons is overly earnest at times, and the film's array of British and American actors don't even try to play Spaniards convincingly. Cox makes an attractive and admirable man of God, but Escriva as written here is mostly one-dimensional. An impressive supporting cast of pros including Derek Jacobi, Geraldine Chaplin and Charles Dance helps to give the movie greater credibility.
The production is beautifully designed by Oscar-winner Eugenio Zanetti (What Dreams May Come) and photographed in gorgeous hues by Gabriel Beristain (Derek Jarman's Caravaggio). There Be Dragons is truly one of the best-looking movies in recent memory.
I came away wishing it were a bit more objective in depicting a recent saint about whom much is known as well as the religious order he founded, but this is still one of the more genuinely spiritual contemporary films to hit the big screen.
Reverend's Rating: B
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.