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DVD Review: There Be Dragons

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There Be Dragons is an interesting film, a dramatization of the early life of Josemaría Escrivá (Charlie Cox), who was named a saint in 2002. Escrivá founded Opus Dei, which was a more open form of Catholicism, teaching that not just priests but everyone could perform acts of holiness in daily life.

The film derives its title from the Latin hic sunt dracones, a medieval term for noting unknown and dangerous places, or uncharted areas, as commonly depicted by a sea serpent on a map of some exotic yet-undiscovered territory.

The DVD of There Be Dragons, which runs just over two hours, includes some extras – including scene selection and subtitles.

[Charlie Cox as Josemaría Escrivá]

Escrivá’s real-life flight from Madrid to escape the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War is depicted in There Be Dragons — a pivotal moment in his life. The film tries to touch on the choices people make in life, and the path to forgiveness, played out against the backdrop of the hellish war. Escrivá’s escape is also important to the movie’s narrator, fictional character Manolo (Wes Bentley). 

A journalist named Robert (Dougray Scott), investigating the potential sainthood of Escrivá, discovers that his father Manolo, with whom he has a strained relationship, was a childhood friend of Escrivá. The movie jumps back and forth from Robert’s and an older Manolo’s present to narrated sequences from Manolo’s troubled past — his own distant father, his ambivalent friendship with Escrivá, and his doomed romance with a Hungarian revolutionary (Olga Kurylenko). Actors Derek Jacobi and Geraldine Chaplin also appear in brief but effective cameos.

[Wes Bentley as Manolo]

Director Roland Joffé, who also wrote the film, tries to create an epic along the lines of his previous effort, The Mission, which also dealt with questions of faith. There Be Dragons is beautifully filmed, with cinematography by Gabriel Beristain, utilizing beautiful film locations in Spain and Argentina, but it lacks the emotional sweep and punch of The Mission. Cox is quiet but quite affecting as Escrivá. But his counterpart, Bentley, is not at all compelling in the difficult role of the unsympathetic Manolo. His emotions seemed dulled down, and the film drags whenever he is onscreen. The convoluted politics of the Spanish Civil War, which the film tries to simplify into fascists versus communists, will be confusing to many viewers. It’s difficult to follow or to get involved in the opposing characters’ causes. Escrivá and his political connections are still to this day considered controversial.

There be Dragons is involving at times, but its narrative structure distances viewers from what should be a powerful and emotional story.

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