Movie Review: There Be Dragons (Spoilers!)

Even as a child, I have always been an avid reader, devouring any kind of book that I came across. I read storybooks, Children’s Encyclopedias and fairy tales. Among those classic children’s books that I read, such as Dr. Seuss and Berenstein Bears were several colorful storybooks that had the lives of the saints. I remember that there were two thin volumes, and each saint had a page that detailed their lives in the simplest terms, and a picture on the opposite page.

I was raised as a Catholic, so it is no surprise that I had some storybooks about the lives of the saints, storybooks that contained Bible stories, like about Noah and the Ark, and of course, a Children’s Bible.

I had my favorites, based on the stuff that I had read about them, like Saint Catherine of Sienna and Saint Cecilia. I remember that I liked Saint Catherine of Sienna because her name was close to my real name and she looked really pretty in the picture. I liked Saint Cecilia because she was the patroness of music, and she was also very pretty. Another of my favorites would have to be Saint Josemaria Escriva, who is most known because he was canonized in 2002, and because he is the founder of Opus Dei, which has been the subject of much debate, like in the Da Vinci Code.

I first read about St. Josemaria because of a children’s book my mother bought when I was around 9 years old or so. I remember spending one summer rereading that book. I didn’t really think much about it, not even when I learned that the picture of the kindly old man in a black cassock that was in our school chapel was St. Josemaria. Yes, I am one of those kids who really grew up learning about this particular saint, not only in school, but through my parents as well. And I would go to centers (of Opus Dei), and I would help out in teaching catechism to street kids in the slums of Manila. It was also because I used to go to this place that I experienced my first out of town trip without my parents- a fun cultural trip to Ilocos.

You can imagine that when I heard that a movie in which St. Josemaria would be somewhat of a main character…well, I was pretty happy over that…and the fact that I would be able to see some events in his life that I had only read about come to life in a movie that was not a documentary.

So yesterday, my mother, my sister, my brother, and a couple of their friends watched the movie with St.Josemaria in it– There Be Dragons.

There Be Dragons is directed by Roland Joffe, the director of The Mission and The Killing Fields. The movie opens with a writer, Robert who is asked to write a book about the newly canonized St. Josemaria. He tries to turn to his estranged father, Manolo, for help as the saint and Robert’s father grew up in the same town, and attended the same seminary together. Manolo refuses to help at first, but as his past continues to haunt him in recurring nightmares, Manolo starts dictating his life story onto an ancient tape recorder.

Manolo and Josemaria were childhood friends. Manolo was rich, whereas Josemaria’s dad’s business (A chocolate shop) became bankrupt. Manolo’s stern father believed that poverty was contagious and didn’t allow young Manolo to become friends with the young Josemaria.

The two meet each other again in the seminary, but Manolo leaves, while St. Josemaria stays and has a vision of what God wants for him- to found Opus Dei, the work of God. In his vision, he was shown people from different walks of life, ending with everyone looking at Jesus who is working as a carpenter. The Work, as it was first called, would be a group of laity, single men and women, and married couples who are able to find sanctification in daily life.

In the meantime, Manolo becomes bitter against the world as his father is killed at the hands of the communists. Soon afterward, he joins the facists and becomes a spy for them, infiltrating the socialists/communists. It is here that he falls in love with a Hungarian woman, who turns her attentions to the leader of the socialists there in Spain-Oriol. Later on, Manolo frames the Hungarian woman as the facist spy, but as Oriol cannot bring himself to kill her, he kills himself, leaving the Hungarian woman behind with a promise that he will wait for her on the other side. It is then that Manolo discovers that the Hungarian woman is pregnant. However, instead of living on, she refuses to eat, and refuses to hold her baby when she gives birth to it. In the battle of Madrid, the opposing army tells them to surrender, and Manolo seeing that the Hungarian woman means to fight until she dies, kills her.

While Manolo is off being a spy, St. Josemaria is forced to go into hiding as the anarchists start killing clergy. At first one would wonder why, but it is made clear when St. Josemaria states that priests are seen as part of the oppressive system that these people wish to be free off. St. Josemaria and several of his close friends have to stay at different houses, and celebrate Mass in secret. Everything comes to a head when while hiding in a mental institute, St. Josemaria encounters a girl who was a rape victim, and who tells him that she still loves God, and that he has to go over some mountains. Josemaria’s companions urge him to escape the city. Although he is hesitant about it, he is convinced when he realizes that it would be safer for his mother, sister and brother, and the fact that they would have to escape over the Pyrenees–through the mountains- to France.

At a certain point, it seems that Josemaria is sad over the fact that he left the city behind, even though he promised to stay. His companions try to get him to eat, but he refusues. However, one night, at early dawn, he encounters a run down church. Inside he sees a statue of Mother Mary, that all of a sudden had water flowing. Also, he saw a wooden rose on the floor near the statue. Taking this as a sign, he regains his strength, and continues on his journey towards France.

Manolo encounters Josemaria again in the mountains, with another soldier awaiting for orders to shoot the priest. Manolo stalls the other soldier, and when Josemaria and the others are almost accross the border, the soldier fires, allowing Josemaria and his companions to move faster to get across the border. The scene pans back from the jubilant faces of Josemaria and his friends to Manolo, who has shot the soldier who tried to kill Josemaria.

Robert listens to his fathers tapes, and rushes to the side of his now dying father. Manolo reveals to him that after the war, he went back to the farmhouse where the Hungarian woman abandoned her baby, and adopted the baby boy. That boy was Robert. Manolo asks for Robert’s forgiveness, but Robert can’t seem to give it. Manolo also asks for Robert to pray for him.

In the end, the dying Manolo is visited by his childhood friend, Josemaria. He lifts up the rosary that was given to him by Josemaria, and says that he is glad that Josemaria stuck to his promise, that he would come for Manolo. It is also in the end that Robert finds himself able to forgive his father.

The title of the movie comes from the old saying found in old maps “Here there be dragons”. It simply means that these places are the uncharted and unexplored places that might lead to danger. In a way, it also represents the unexplored places in our hearts…it could be the place in our hearts where there are struggles and the like.

The film’s music was good, and the cinematography was stunning- from the cobble stone streets of Spain to the rocky mountains. The most beautiful scene, in terms of cinematography, for me was the scene where St. Josemaria walks into a church, finds the statue of Mother Mary, and then dawn breaks, as seen by the slab of light suddenly appearing. Then he sees the wooden rose, and walks out of the rundown church.

I found it interesting that this is the only film that I have seen about this period of history- The Spanish Civil War. It is interesting to see Spain in those times, as I don’t get to see many movies about old Spain.

With the acting, I have to commend both Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley…and I also have to commend the casting director. The actors of Isodoro and Pedro really look like their real life counterparts, as seen in Isodoro’s prayer card and Pedro’s picture in a book I found at home. Charlie Cox did a great job as St. Josemaria. Wes Bentley will forever be known to me as the guy who always looks angry in this movie. I heard also that he usually brings stimulants (drugs) to movie sets while filming, but this time, he discovered that he didn’t need to use them to be able to portray this role, and I think that that is amazing.

My only annoyance in the movie is that I couldn’t really understand what the Hungarian woman was saying. But then again, it may have been because of a faulty sound system in the theater.

For me, more than a religious-historical film, it was a film about friendship and forgiveness. And it was made even more clear at the final scene of the movie– the young Josemaria and Manolo laughing together while listening to Josemaria’s nanny telling stories about dragons, and Josemaria’s mother sewing an embroidered rose.

This film has it’s flaws, but the message is universal, and I think that it’s a must watch not only for those who have been touched by this saint’s life, but also for those who enjoy history as well.

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