Roland Joffe’s film, a serious historical epic with moral overtones, is a throwback to his best work—“The Killing Fields” (1984) and “The Mission” (1986). But though it’s good to see the veteran trying to recapture his early success in a career that’s gone steadily downhill over a quarter-century (certainly reaching its nadir with the appalling “Captivity” in 2007), “There Be Dragons” is, despite its high-mindedness, an almost complete misfire.
Perhaps that’s because while in those two previous films Joffe was working from scripts by others—Bruce Robinson and Robert Bolt, respectively—in this case he’s written his own, an account of the early years of Josemaria Escriva, the founder of the controversial Catholic movement known as Opus Dei, set mostly against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. But his treatment of Escriva is frankly flat and one-dimensional (and often slightly silly). And to set it off, Joffe has concocted an entirely fictional plot thread centered on a supposed childhood friend of Escriva who becomes his polar opposite. Not only that, he actually devotes more time to the made-up character than to the historical one. The result is a lopsided film as well as a turgid, boring one.
After a pre-credit sequence that explains the title (involving a medieval map that notes the dangers lurking beyond the confines of the known Mediterranean world), “Dragons” launches into an overlong prologue detailing how the friendship of Josemaria (Juan Cruz) and Manolo (Felipe Agote) is ruined by the failure of the chocolate factory owned by Josemaria’s father, which pushes the family into a lower social class. And while the young Josemaria moves toward the spiritual life—a calling clumsily conveyed in a scene with Derek Jacobi as the supposedly wise manager of the factory—Manolo grows increasingly worldly and cynical. The end result is shown when both enter the seminary together—now played by Charlie Cox as Escriva and Wes Bentley as Manolo–and get into a row before the latter decamps for a worldly life.
From here on alternating sequences contrast Escriva’s vocation to create his movement calling non-clerical Catholics to live lives of service to God while being endangered by the radical secularists who make up the leftist republican side in the Civil War, with Manolo’s entrance into the conflict as a rightist spy in the socialist army. There’s an attempt to juxtapose elements in their stories—a brief scene in a park in which the celibate Escriva declines a woman’s invitation to her apartment, for example, is used as counterpoint to Manolo’s destructive lust for a Hungarian woman who’s instead attracted to Oriol (Rodrigo Santoro), the charismatic leader of their radical brigade. But both halves of the picture stumble in a welter of poor characterization (as played by Cox, Escriva comes across as little more than a prissy prig, and Bentley makes Manolo a gruff, brooding cipher), tritely risible dialogue (when Escriva remarks that the name of his movement is “The Work of God,” someone observes that would sound better in Latin, and—eureka!—“Opus Dei” is born) and ham-fisted situations (the depiction of Manolo’s deathbed conversion suggests that Joffe has too great an admiration for Lord Marchmain’s in “Brideshead Revisited”).
To make matters even worse, Joffe brackets everything with a contemporary framing device that has the elderly Manolo’s son Robert (Dougray Scott, sporting an almost comically awful accent) learning about Escriva’s early life from his long-estranged father as he researches a book about the recently-canonized priest. With Bentley encased in some of the worst old-age makeup ever committed to celluloid and Scott mumbling his lines, these are among the most tedious sequences in the picture.
The film is, however, visually impressive, with the behind-the-camera crew (production designer Eugenio Zanetti, art directors Marcelo Salvioli, Sonia Aranzabal and Marcela Bazzano and costumer Yvonne Blake) fashioning a convincing replica of wartime Spain in Argentina) and cinematographer Gabriel Beristain capturing their work in fine widescreen lensing.
But “There Be Dragons” ultimately fails not so much because its treatment of Escriva is so cautious, amounting to what the many critics of Opus Dei will certainly consider a whitewash, but because ultimately its reach so completely exceeds its grasp. Joffe has fashioned a would-be epic that’s outsized only in the extent of its inability to invest the characters, both real and imagined, with a sense of authenticity. And as a result you wind up not caring—or even being much interested in—any of them.