The last time we took any note of Roland Joffe, the director of “The Mission” and “The Killing Fields,” it was through his take on the ugly genre “torture porn” titled “Captivity” back in 2007. To be fair, he followed that up with the lesbian murder mystery “You and I,” which even fewer people people saw.
He’s back in theaters and back in the world of period pieces with “There Be Dragons,” a Spanish Civil War tale that tells the story of the controversial founder of the Catholic Opus Dei organization. It’s an odd but ambitious choice and a muddled and unsatisfying film — “Doctor Zhivago” without the majesty, “Reds” without the passion or romance.
In the early 1980s, a Spanish journalist, Robert (Dougray Scott) is doing a story on Josemaria Escriva, who founded Opus Dei in 1928, just before the Spanish Civil War. The journalist’s estranged father (played by Wes Bentley of “American Beauty” in old age makeup in many scenes) knew Escriva in childhood and during the Civil War. The embittered old man wants to know, “Why would you write a book about him?” This was before Escriva was hastily made a saint under Pope John Paul II.
But Robert is determined, so his father sends his boxes of documents and makes him an audiotape. Much of the film is awkwardly narrated by an American actor feigning a faint Spanish accent and pretending to be 50 years older than he is.
We follow the two through a rich man/newly poor man childhood, on up to the events leading into the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. The men even went to seminary together, but were at odds, with the bankrupt factory owner’s son Escriva (Charlie Cox of “Stardust”) showing signs of idealism and compassion, while the still-rich Manolo (Bentley) remembers his father’s edict about “man’s one duty” in times of civil strife, “choosing the winning side.”
When the politically polarized country splits, Manolo joins the republicans and spies on them for the fascists — the Army and its German advisers. Josemaria continues his priestly duties, keeping his communal lay group Opus Dei intact, dodging communist death squads which killed almost 7,000 Catholic priests during that war. The film makes little mention of the 50-200,000 leftists, artists and ordinary civilians rounded up and murdered by the fascists, fascists backed by the Catholic Church. But Joffe, who wrote it, seems uncertain of how much whitewash to apply to this story before we start laughing at him.
Needless to say, it’s a little odd to watch a movie that seems to be of mixed feelings about the Spanish fascists. The more public controversies about Escriva have to do with his coziness with right wing dictators. A virulent anti-communist, he garnered favors, influence, titles and wealth from Spain’s Francisco Franco and Chile’s Augosto Pinochet. And he’s alleged to have had a kind word, here and there, for Hitler.
But none of that was brought up in the fast-tracked process of institutionalizing his “miracles” so that he could be a saint, while an uproar allegations over his personal life and the secretive “cult” nature and bare-knuckled tactics of Opus Dei, the favorite whipping boy of “Da Vinci Code” author and conspiracy theorist Dan Brown, was ignored. Joffe seems to be making a movie with one-arm tied behind his back, where Escriva was concerned. Opus Dei members produced the film.
So Joffe lets himself get distracted on a love triangle involving Manolo and Hungarian leftist fighter (Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) who sort of loves the leader of their cadre, Oriol (Rodrigo Santoro). Essentially armed civilians supporting their secular government against a military coup, the republicans drew volunteers from around the world (Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” touches on their motives) and had support from the Soviet Union. Joffe stages some decent battle sequences and gives us a vivid if sanitized sense of the time and place, but bogs down every time he addresses the utterly unromantic romance.
As an afterthought, we check in on Father Escriva, secretly hearing confessions in a zoo, or spirited out of the country by his followers. Another afterthought, the journalist “investigating” all this, using his father’s testimony to tell the whole unmoving story.
“There be Dragons” — the title refers to those old map legends about territories which were unknown and thought to be dangerous — takes on a subject which the Spanish themselves were slow to address, an ugly Civil War with atrocities on both sides and the more ruthless side being the winner. But Joffe seems way off his game here, as if forced to contort his script, filling it with blind spots, to tell a saintly story of a saint many don’t believe all that saintly. That turns the already cumbersome and emotionally barren “There be Dragons” into a hagiography for the faithful, an “Atlas Shrugged” for Opus Dei fans, those willing to ignore its faults thanks to its politics.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence and combat sequences, some language and thematic elements.
Cast: Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Olga Kurylenko, Dougray Scott
Credits: Written and directed by Roland Joffe, produced by Ignacio Gomez-Sancha, Ignacio Nunez. A Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Running time: 1:59.