There is hardly a more controversial, or more intriguing, subject for a biographical film than Josemaria Escriva, the founder of the lay Catholic group Opus Dei, played here by Charlie Cox. Nor is there a backdrop stuffed fuller with dramatic potential than the Spanish civil war, through which Escriva lived as a young priest. So it is quite disappointing that veteran director Roland Joffe delivers a film that, though moving and interesting at times, comes off mostly as slight and muddled.
The film has a framing story, involving a journalist, Robert (Dougray Scott) who is assigned to write a book about Escriva. Robert's elderly father Manolo (Wes Bentley) grew up with Escriva. Robert starts on the twin quest to reconcile with his father, to whom he has not spoken in years, and uncover information about the life of the proposed Catholic saint.
Manolo is filled with bitterness and regret over his life, and has mixed feelings about Escriva. He turns over to his son a series of tapes that represent a sort of recorded memoir of his life. Manolo and Escriva are of an age, and their fathers are businessmen and sometimes rivals in the small town where they grew up. Escriva's father goes bankrupt, while Manolo's thrives. Already in their youths, unrest is felt in Spain, as the poor protest against the rich and agitate for better working conditions and pay.
Both young men enter the seminary, but Manolo leaves after only a year. Escriva continues on, and becomes a priest. Both see much suffering in their lives, but otherwise their paths diverge: Manolo taking over his father's factories and Escriva striving to form a lay group dedicated to holiness in everyday things, later to be known as Opus Dei. As tensions mount, their paths cross from time to time, but mostly they pass through their own separate worlds. Once the civil war proper breaks out, Manolo agrees to become a spy amongst the communist forces, while as a priest Escriva must stay in hiding, and constantly move from place to place.
Joffe spends a lot of time meditating on the themes of forgiveness, self interest and sacrifice, and There Be Dragons should be thought of more as an extended meditation than a biopic. Screen time is so evenly divided between Manolo and Escriva, (with a smaller, but significant portion allotted to Robert) even when their lives are only tenuously connected, that neither man is given the attention necessary to develop as a character. As a study in contrasts, they work admirably, though sometimes in a manner more forced than warranted. Manolo's father once told him, "Man has one duty, to choose the winning side." And Manolo himself spends the film seeking his own interest, betraying, and working to protect the moneyed interests in Spain, clearly siding with the fascists. Escriva, on the other hand, visits the sick, cleaning up filthy dishes while letting the weaker stomached teach his Latin class, and displays an even handed regard for the humanity of both sides in the civil war, and forgives those that kill his friends, and would kill him for the sole crime of being a Catholic priest.
Even though these contrasts work dramatically at times, and are ultimately moving toward the overarching theme of forgiveness and reconciliation, they can be a bit heavy handed, and this lack of subtlety (despite Escriva's occasional questions and doubts) drain a lot of the emotion that should be evoked. Plot points and character beats that clearly are intended to be moving are left oddly empty and devoid of feeling. It's as if Joffe, who does understand how to tug at an audience's heartstrings, is two and a half beats off, just missing the magical touch that would turn these scenes into dramatic gold. Some of this is due to the aforementioned splitting of screen time between Manolo and Escriva, allowing neither to blossom into full form, but also from a sense of detachment from events. Perhaps the narration and framing story cause the audience to feel one step removed from events, and disallow a deep identification with the characters, giving rise to a bloodless feeling all around.
This is not to say that There Be Dragons is without merit. Far from it. Technically, there is hardly any room to fault Joffe at all, with the possible exception of the old age makeup used on the quite youthful Wes Bentley. One never quite believes that he is an old man, even when he is narrating and his face isn't visible. Otherwise, Joffe pulls it off with ease. The film truly is epic in scope, encompassing pitched battles, insane asylums, cramped priest holes, open fields and forced marches. Everything has a sense of solidity and reality, and one is never distracted with the thought that such and such prop or vehicle is out of place, or that we are looking at a set. The performances are also quite well done, with Cox lending a total veracity and saint like innocence to Escriva, while still portraying him as a true human person. Bentley is hampered by the old age makeup that he wears for much of the film, but otherwise does his best. And the supporting cast, including Olga Kurylenko, Rodrigo Santoro, Derek Jacobi and even model Lily Cole, do their turns quite nicely.
And the film is moving and engaging at times, but only in fits and starts. There Be Dragons never manages to pull the audience totally into the world it is exploring. There are too many dramatic threads for the viewer to give themselves wholeheartedly to any one, and so they invest in none. The film has a lot going for it, and succeeds a good portion of the time, but never reaches the heights to which it is aiming. Recommended, but with some reservations.