Tuesday, May 10, 2011

There be Dragons [2011]

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Fr Dennis (3 1/2 stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review

I found There be Dragons (written and directed by Ronald Joffé) to be an excellent film about the early years of St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of the Opus Dei movement.   Since just about everything regarding the Opus Dei movement tends to produce extremely strong reations both pro and against, I do believe it is useful to put this film into the context of both the other films made by Ronald Joffé and other hagiographical films (biographical works about saints) made in our time.   

Ronald Joffé had previously directed the Oscar nominated films The Killing Fields (1984) about a New York Times reporter seeking to find his Cambodian translator after the fall of Cambodia to the Communist Khmer Rouge, as well as The Mission (1986) starring Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons about the suppression of the Jesuit Mission to the Guarani Indians in Paraguay in the late 1700s.  He also directed the 1995 remake of  The Scarlet Letter starring Demi Moore.  An excellent interview with Joffé regarding his decision to make There be Dragons about the St. Josemaria Escriva can be found in the National Catholic Register.  I do believe that a number of the themes/concerns present in these previous works can also be found in There be Dragons.  These include Communism both in its ideal (The Mission) and its documentable historical excess (Killing Fields), discerning the best path for the individual / the weak to combat (The Mission) or at least witness against (The Killing Fields / The Scarlet Letter) the horrific abuses of the Powerful.  Even the use of the figure of “a common man”/”reporter” to tell the story of the heroic deeds of “the Saints / Martyrs” can be found in both The Killing Fields and The Mission and is certainly present in There Be Dragons.  So Dragons is not the work of an ideological hack.

Then, I do believe that it is useful to compare There be Dragons to other hagiographical films of recent memory including, A Man for All Seasons (1966 directed by Fred Zinnemann and both the play and screenplay written by Robert Bolt) about St. Thomas More, Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972 directed and cowritten by Franco Zeffirelli) about the early years of St. Francis of Assisi, Bernadette (1988 directed and cowritten by Jean Delannoy) about St. Bernadette of Lourdes, as well as the influential films (in Catholic circles) produced by Paulist Media, Romero (1989, directed by John Duignan, written by John Sacret Young and starring Raul Julia as the slain Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador) and Entertaining Angels (directed by Michael Ray Rhodes and John Wells and starring Moira Kelly as Dorothy Day and Martin Sheen) about Dorothy Day of New York co-foundress of the Catholic Worker Movement during the Great Depression.  Included in this category could even be the Gandhi (1982, directed by Richard Attenborough, written by John Briley and starring Ben Kingsley as Mahatma K. Gandhi of India) and Seven Years in Tibet (1997 directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud screenplay written by Becky Johnston based on the book by Heinrich Herrer and starring Brad Pitt as Herrer a “recovering sinner” living and working in Tibet in the presence of the Dalai Lama during the years of WW II up until the Chinese occupation (or re-occupation) of that country). 

All these films can help one appreciate both the various characteristics that do make one come to stand-out as a Saint and also various techniques used by writers and film-makers to tell the Saint’s story. 

Viewed in the context of these other Saint’s lives, if one had doubts about St. Josemaria Escriva’s “qualifications” to be a Saint, I think that they can be dispelled.  I do also believe that St. Josemaria Escriva both in life and after-earthly-life, exhibited the same “lightning rod” nature of many of the Saints (and non-Christian/secular ‘saints’) listed above.  It's not easy to be "neutral" about these people.  For instance, it was all but inevitable that St. Thomas More would have to be put to death under Henry VIII.  (Four centuries later, rather than put another excrutiatingly irritatingly honest man to death, Mahatma Gandhi, the British chose to leave India rather than fight (and sin) to continue to dominate it).

Then while finding someone to play Oscar Romero proved not altogether hard (and it was Raul Julia’s true role of his lifetime), it proved _extremely hard_ to find someone to play Dorothy Day.  Why?  Dorothy Day was an ex-Communist, Catholic convert who had earlier in her life had an abortion which she immediately regretted, and when she got pregnant a second time she had both herself and her child baptized and later in the 1960s came to compare the advent of the Birth Control Pill to the H-bomb.  From the mid-1930s onward she spent her life feeding the poor and on during the 1950s when New York City would hold atomic bomb drills, not only did she and her community not participate, they publicly went to Central Park to play volleyball instead.  Almost _no Hollywood actress_ was brave enough to play her though Moira Kelly finally did (and did a great job) even though Martin Sheen was more than happy to play Peter Maurin, who helped Dorothy Day co-found the Catholic Worker as well.  I doubt that many Hollywood actors were lining up to play St. Josemaria Escriva "in his early years" either, though Charlie Cox did so, and again, did a great job.

So what of Josemaria Escriva’s life do we learn that make him compelling as a Saint?  Obviously, I’m not going to list everything or even most things to not ruin the movie for the reader but I will list some.  First, he knew something of _failure_ (economic and otherwise) early in life.  His father went bankrupt several times when he was growing up.  At a time currently when up to 40% of Americans have a negative networth (owe more than they own) someone who knew something of economic failure (and survived/transcended it) becomes already a compelling figure. 

Second, Josemaria Escriva was clearly formed during the Spanish Civil War (something that the bulk of the movie is about).  But the movie portrays Escriva as someone far more complex than what could be assumed.  At a time when priests and nuns were being _rounded-up and shot_, (my own Order has a recently beatified martyr Sr. Maria Guadalupe Ricart Olmos, OSM of Spain who was executed by the Reds during the Spanish Civil War) and Escriva himself had to spend a number of years _in plain clothes_ conducting his priestly ministry, the movie did portray him as someone who _did understand the Communists_ as well.  He did disagree with their methods but he did not deny the fundamental injustices that they were fighting.  Finally, Escriva is presented in the movie as _despising careerists_ in the Church _and_ actually refusing the protection and “mentoring” of a Bishop in Valencia who could have made the initial years of his fledgling Opus Dei community much easier than it turned out.  Instead, Escriva and his community arguably chose to “go it alone” _in much the same way_ as Dorothy Day and _her community_ did in New York during roughly the same time (Amazing, isn't it?)  I find that these surprising and _compelling_ bits of information about St. Josemaria Escriva make him an interesting and challenging saint at a time when _we_ often dismiss those we disagree with out of hand, without realizing that the justice of their arguments as well.

Indeed, like Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon became an interesting “topic of conversation” over the years with Franciscans, it will be interesting how There be Dragons comes to be seen by Opus Dei in the years and decades to come.  Will it be seen as a source of renewed inspiration?  Or will it come to be seen as a story that Hollywood didn’t get quite right?

Folks, honestly check back in five years ;-).  In the mean time, here's an excellent review of the movie from Opus Dei's American website.  And yes, I would recommend the movie to all teens and adults.  There is something to be learned here for all people of good will.

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