My husband and I went to There Be Dragons yesterday with my brother and sister-in-law and all of us found it fascinating. The movie depicts the early life of St. Josemaria Escriva and the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. I wondered how much of the movie was based on fact and how much was fiction so I went searching on the internet later. Unfortunately, the central story about the relationship between Josemaria and his friend Manolo is completely fabricated and the movie focuses heavily on the fictional character. I wonder what a more factual story about the saint might have produced.
History is definitely not the focus of this movie. If you think you'll get a sense of what the Spanish Civil War was all about, forget it. There is little mention of the fact that it pitted anti-religious Marxist Communists in collusion with Russia against traditionalists and Catholics, i.e. the fascists. The one political scene shows a charismatic leader of the Republicans giving a typical Communist speech calling for class warfare, you know the exploited workers against the bourgeoisie. While you see a little of the deliberate destruction of the churches and the attack on the clergy, it is mild compared to the reality of what took place during the war. Monasteries and convents were burned and their inhabitants summarily executed and buried in mass graves by the Republicans (the Communists). Churches were systematically destroyed. Catholic laity were martyred. Atrocities took place on both sides, but in our politically correct world, it is Franco, the Nationalist, who is vilified while the Marxist atrocities are often overlooked.
But the movie bypasses these issues almost completely (none of the leaders on either side is ever mentioned). It focuses instead on the friendship between Josemaria Escriva and Manolo who follow very different paths, one the priest, the other the disillusioned Catholic agnostic. One of the problems with the movie, pointed out by Steven Greydanus, a reviewer with the National Catholic Register, is Manolo:
a fictional character futilely charged with carrying the dramatic burden of a film he is patently unable to carry, while a far more charismatic and intriguing historical figure stands off to one side, like young David glowing with promise and purpose while King Saul flails impotently, drowning in his own deficiency.
The difference is that where Saul eventually quits the stage, leaving David to assume the spotlight, Manolo staggers to the end of There Be Dragons with the weight of the narrative firmly on his shoulders. Josemaría stays on the sidelines and eventually slips away, almost unaware of the drama not quite intersecting his story....
At times one can see a serious epic trying to emerge from the muddled proceedings. One can even feel the hand of the director of The Mission, a far better historical drama also contrasting a heroic priest and a flawed soldier. There are flashes of real religious feeling, particularly from Cox, who projects genuineness and openness. Merely to see St. Josemaría and Opus Dei sympathetically portrayed is refreshing. Alas, it’s precisely these glimpses of the film There Be Dragons might have been that make its failure, and the lost opportunity it represents, all the more disappointing. See more here...When you get right down to it, the story wasn't primarily about Josemaria Escriva at all, although you get the impression it is from the opening scene depicting the priest's death. No, it is mostly about the relationship between Manolo's son, Roberto who is writing a book about the priest, and his father who has a dark secret lurking in the background that's only revealed late in the film. The nature of fatherhood is a thread weaving the film together, but the film left many loose ends about the, to me, most interesting father in the story, Josemaria.
Don't get me wrong, I still liked the film and, in fact, found it so gripping and intense I whispered to my husband at one point, "We need some comic relief like Shakespeare put in his tragedies." But I wish we had seen more of the reality of the saint. I suspect Josemaria's real story is even more interesting than the fiction.
P.S. Derek Jacobi was great in a small role as the manager of the chocolate factory owned by Josemaria's father.