There Be Dragons


Review by Willard Manus

Roland Joffe has always been adept with epics. For proof, check out some of the writer/director's past films such as The Killing Fields, The Mission and City of Joy, all of which deal with large historical subjects--the war in Cambodia, the Jesuits in 18th-century Brazil, poverty in Calcutta--and manage to personalize them skilfully.

Now the British-born Joffe has taken on more historical baggage in his latest film, THERE BE DRAGONS--the Spanish Civil War. As if that weren't challenge enough, he has also set out to dramatize the life of Josemaria Escriva, the humble, idealistic Catholic priest who founded the Opus Dei ("God's Work") organization in 1928 and became a saint in 2002. Opus Dei eventually became a powerful, secretive and controversial sect, one that came under attack in Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code.

Joffe adds additional layers to his complex script: an exploration of the father-son theme with related riffs on the nature of forgiveness. He also garnishes his text with quotes from poetry and literature--and swings back and forth in time like a pendulum.

It would be wrong to conclude, though, that THERE BE DRAGONS is a ponderous film, one that's too arty and dense for its own good. On the contrary. THERE BE DRAGONS is packed with action: there are battle scenes galore, hand-to-hand fighting in the streets and fields of Spain, air attacks, gory hospital scenes. Joffe also zeroes in on an intense love story between a beautiful Hungarian revolutionary (Olga Kurylenko) and her commanding officer (Rodrigo Santoro).

THERE BE DRAGONS opens with the story of London-based investigative journalist Robert Torres (Dougray Scott), who goes to Spain to research a book about Josemarie (Charlie Cox)--and to try and make contact with his father, Manolo (Wes Bentley), who for years has refused to speak to him. As Robert begins to research the life of Josemarie and the extraordinary history of the early days of Opus Dei in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, he discovers that his father not only grew up with Escriva but attended the same seminary. The two later went their own ways, with Josemarie becoming a priest, Manolo a successful businessman who aligned himself with the reactionary forces in Spain. When war breaks out, Manolo infiltrates the Republican army and serves as a spy.

Flashbacks reveal what happened to Manolo and Josemarie after they get caught up in history and politics, with Left battling Right in brutal, bloody fashion--especially when Nazi Germany joins the fray and helps crush the rebels. Joffe excels at telling that part of the narrative, aided by cinematographer Gabriel Beristain, art director Eugenio Zanetti, and costume designer Michele Burke. Together these skilled craftsmen make 1930s Spain come to vivid, clamorous life.

Because so much of THERE BE DRAGONS takes place in Spain and deals with native characters, it might have worked better if everyone in the film had spoken Spanish. But Joffe, no doubt in an attempt to make his film more accessible to an American audience, opted to have the actors speak English. As a result, much of the dialogue comes off as stilted and awkward-sounding.

But the film's biggest problem stems from Joffe having bitten off more than he can chew. THERE BE DRAGONS tries to do too much, tell too many stories. As a result, the film loses focus and emotional impact as it unfolds.

It doesn't mean, though, that THERE BE DRAGONS can't be recommended. The film has depth and power--and it deals with serious issues in an adult, intelligent way.

On a scale of one to five, I'd give it three stars.