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There Be Dragons Indeed

I am one of the apparently few people who have seen There Be Dragons, Roland Joffe’s film about St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei.  Only it isn’t really about Josemaria at all.  It’s about Spain.

The photography is beautiful and the settings are wonderful (so good that they made me homesick for Spain, where I lived in the 60’s and 70’s, in Pamplona and Madrid).  Each individual piece is painstakingly well directed, and the actors do a good job with their one-dimensional characters (Derek Jacobi, Rodrigo Santoro, and Olga Kurylenko are standouts, and Charlie Cox does as well as can be expected with his Hallmark card lines).  The problem is that there are too many pieces to this movie, each one is too lengthily and lovingly set up, and they are forced together artificially.  The director really wanted not to tell a story about people, but to say something about history.

Opening with his death, the movie purports to be about Escriva, but his character is a talking holy card.  It is structured around the relationship between him and childhood playmate Manolo, but there can be no relationship between a talking holy card and an antagonist with no position.  It appears to be about the Civil War, but it is a poster-version of the war, with hackneyed and sanitized images of both sides, especially the left. 

For a poster version hero, Rodrigo Santoro is superb as revolutionary leader Oriol, and Dougray Scott is good as the contemporary Robert, childless son of dying judge Manolo. Wes Bently fails to give reason or depth to his portrayal of Manolo, which makes sense, because Manolo makes no sense.  He represents the evil secrets of the Civil War, the truth between the holy cards and the Communist posters.  He is both sides, and no side.  He is the Spain that, in the Franco era, became “the Judge” of what to say and when, keeping the war tightly under wraps.  His repression and silence has made his son hate him.

The son, Robert, is modern Spain, cut off from its past and seeing no future (Spain has the lowest birthrate in Europe). The movie reveals New Spain to be the child of revolutionaries on both sides, while Manolo/Franco, the putative father, was simply a caretaker.  The only continuity possible now between old and new Spain lies in finding and accepting the evil of the war, and realizing that your foster father’s only virtue was that he kept you alive so that you could do that. 

Robert does not forgive his father for his evil; he simply accepts him for the good he did.  Manolo submits to confessing his crimes, “kisses a–“, and is accepted by the spirit of Escriva as he dies. The movie can not work unless Manolo, the judge (Franco’s Spain), dies.  That Spain, the one who betrayed the “real” Spain during the war, has no place in the future, a future toward which Robert is guided by his non-Western wife, who can peacefully absorb all conflict and transcend religions.     

You might say that a movie can’t be such a simplistic allegory, and I would agree.  That’s why this isn’t so much a movie, a story, as a thought piece using posters, holy cards, and scenery, with the action moved along by little bits of religiosity and coincidence. The character Josemaria was a convenient way to tie it all together.  His Catholicism is on everybody’s side.

The truth is that Escriva was close to the Franco regime, and Opus Dei was at the heart of the Franco modernization of Spain.  Perhaps the movie was Opus Dei’s attempt to distance itself from that past and re-brand itself for a new world.  In any case, the movie was scared to scratch the surface of the war on either side.  It is still a deadly topic in Spain.  That, I think, is the code meaning of the title. There Be Dragons indeed, dragons which Spain still has not faced.  And this movie doesn’t either.

 (© 2011 Mary Ann Parks)


Mary Ann Parks, M.A. (Theology), is a writer, artist, caricaturist, and director of a small non-profit ministry.


  • Yes Mary Ann although I would say the dichotomy in Spanish culture goes back a long time. Two things I read gave me an idea of the problem: Historia de los Heterodoxos Españoles (Menéndez y Pelayo) and El Liberalismo es Pecado (Fr. Sardá i Salvany) a prophetic book one can read on line here. One can surmise in this very different books the problem of the “two Spains” one of whom is Hispania the daughter of Rome, and the other the “Cainite” Spain fixated in eternal discontent and self destruction.

    Menendez y Pelayo presents the idea that Spain can only be understood from Rome onwards. It begins its ascent from the tribal mud by following the light of Rome. Then when Rome is gone Spain is preserved by the Catholic Church. The husk of Rome has been consumed and the Church is now fully exposed as the preserver of the identity received by Spain in the glorious days of the Empire. That idea is historically perfect and perfectly easy to see.

    The other Spain, the Cainite Spain, is defined by a historical force that runs in the opposite direction. The atomization of Spain in a number of regions like a post-Tito Yugoslavia is an unconscious intent to return to the days before the Roman invasion. Negating the Roman-Christian past is essential to it.

    That force appears today in the form of Socialism and Regionalism. The two uneasy partners that are destroying Spain idea after idea, abortion after abortion with the intensity that makes the old barbarians look tame.
    Unfortunately the Church of Spain has decided to play safe. The bishops are silent, the King is acquiescent, a mere tin crown presiding over the killings and destruction and in fact approving it and validating it with his own dissipation, poor thing.

    The poet Antonio Machado wrote “one of the two Spains is going to steal your heart.” May be this movie tried to represent that tension. “If the scansion of a line meant all the phonetic facts, no two lines would scan the same way” said C. S. Lewis and likewise I think the gravity of Spain’s fate is way too complex to be represented by the distinct destinies of any two men.

    The fight rages in fact inside the heart of every Spaniard, it is a problem of near biblical intensity, like the idea of St. Paul that both man and creation are awaiting the final redemption and yet the devil has temporarily become the god of this age. The devil is out there but sin is also in our members pulling us down. In that sense, the struggle of Spain is no different from the struggle of the whole human race.
    Roland Joffe’s film is a nice try in the tradition of For Whom the Bell Tolls but the definitive work on this theme is still in the future.

  • Mike Smith

    There is at least an echo of this at work in Mexico (and I think most or all of the rest of Latin America) of the urge to return to a “pre-Columban” era of human sacrifice, as a more “pristine” form of human existence, before those nasty Europeans forced their Christianity on them. The La Raza to “restore” the U. S. Southwest to Mexican control is a demonically retrograde tie in.