Friday, January 13, 2012

There Be Dragons

There was a time when religious epics ruled Hollywood. They were big and expansive in practically every detail, and the public loved them. The Robe, The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told and Ben Hur are classics that helped define the Golden Era of Hollywood. By the 1970s, audiences were looking for something different, and religious films fell out of favor.
But thanks to director Roland Joffé (The Mission and Killing Fields) the religious epic is back. Shot in Argentina and Spain, this film looks absolutely gorgeous. The production design, costumes, art direction, and cinematography are stunning. Did I say epic? Yes. There Be Dragons is epic in scope and design.

The film is complicated to say the least and encompasses every imaginable theme, including betrayal, hatred, love, friendship and forgiveness. Ultimately it’s an exploration of man’s attempt to find meaning in everyday existence. And, within that meaning, we find the nature of God at work. It’s an interesting topic considering Roland Joffé, who also wrote the screenplay, considers himself to be an agnostic. I’d say he’s a man definitely looking for answers to life’s perplexing questions.

Joffé has found the right topic to have a profound discussion about the human condition and how God fits into both the ordinary and the extraordinary. The film is based on the true story of Father Josemarià Escrivà, the founder of Opus Dei which means work of God.

There Be Dragons is told from two points of view in two different eras. In 1982 Robert, a Spanish journalist (Dougray Scott), is researching a book on the life of Father Josemarià Escrivà (Charlie Cox), who will soon be canonized as a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Robert discovers that his father, Manolo (Wes Bentley) with whom he has had an estranged relationship has a connection with Father Josemarià. Apparently, they both grew up in the same village and attended seminary together. However, as time went on, the two men grew apart and chose two vastly different paths.

Manolo follows a life filled with jealousy and hatred, while Josemarià embraces love and forgiveness. Both are tested by the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939), and each will have to make life and death choices. Manolo has many secrets hidden in his past that he has kept from Robert, including a relationship with a Hungarian National who fought on the side of the Republican cause in the war. Lidiko (Olga Kurylenko) is caught up in a romantic triangle with Manolo and the heroic revolutionary Orial (Rodrigo Santoro). What results will change everybody’s life, including Robert’s.

Most of story plays out on the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Father Josemarià struggles to feed his flock while at the same time his life is in danger. Priests are being subject to execution at the hands of Republican forces that fight for the leftist government. Father Josemarià asks God to give him direction and purpose. God’s response will forever define his life. God also helps him to understand the importance of forgiveness, especially for those who are determined to do him wrong.

Some believe the Spanish Civil War was a dress rehearsal for World War II. Over 500,000 people perished in the conflict. But this wasn’t just a civil war; it was a war of ideas. Foreigners from nations throughout the world participated and fought for either the Republicans (Communists/Socialists) or the Nationalists (Fascists) that were lead by General Franco who was ultimately the victor.

As I said, this is a complicated film with weighty subject material. For most Americans who know little or next to nothing about the Spanish Civil War, There Be Dragons may be a challenging film to watch. It’s unfamiliar territory for most of us except for die-hard history buffs.

This isn’t a perfect film. There are times I wish the narrative could have been a little tighter and more focused. Several of the characters weren’t fleshed out enough to feel genuine and authentic. Perhaps I should say there were a little bit too many stereotypes for my taste.

Essentially, There Be Dragons is a film about reconciliation and forgiveness. When we forgive, we are the ones set free and allowed to fully embrace life.

The film has spun a movement of sorts. The filmmakers have received a lot of positive feedback about people forgiving past wrongs—sons forgiving fathers, husbands and wives who have been estranged for years reuniting, and all sorts of other relationships being mended.

There Be Dragons refers to the Latin phrase “hic sunt dracones”, which means here there be dragons. This is a reference that was used on maps that indicated danger, an unknown place, or a place to be explored. I would have to say that is an accurate description of this film as the filmmakers are exploring that thing we call the heart, which is often a dangerous and unknown place that cannot be fully understood.

There Be Dragons is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. This is a film worth checking out. As director Roland Joffé states, There Be Dragons “is a story about people trying to find meaning in their lives.” I think that’s something we all can relate to in our time as well as in the traumatic era of the 1930s.

1 comment:

  1. This makes me want to see the film and possibly use it in my classes.