I didn’t think you could actually make a historical biopic in the style of a Spanish soap opera, and There Be Dragons proves me right. It’s a deathbed flashback tale — a journalist examining the history of a Spanish priest who is being considered for canonization (Pope gonna make him a saint) discovers his father has a connection to him. A sinner telling the life of a saint it’s like Moulin Rouge without the music or charm — a painfully melodramatic flick that communicates in overblown cliches and soap opera aphorisms. It comes from Roland Joffe, a filmmaker who has rightfully earned the Francis Ford Coppola Should’ve Stopped When I Was On Top Honorary Achievement Award for Directing. In the 1980’s, he was directing The Killing Fields, The Mission and Fat Man and Little Boy, which led to a decline which saw him directing Super Mario Bros., the Demi Moore The Scarlet Letter, and most recently, Captivity. Yes, that Captivity. Joffe seems to be trying to climb back to his former glory by revisiting political revolution. Which would work, if he weren’t directing it with the same panache he brought to bringing the harrowing plight of the Brothers Mario to the big screen. There Be Dragons is a fucking mess, two confounding interwoven plots lazily wrapped by a needless frame story, and filled with things that would make “Passions” scribes blush: secret religious organizations, hidden parentage, diabolical turncoats. Honestly, the plot made more sense when Jessica Tate was living it out on “Soap.” Sorry, Rollie. Your Oscar is in another castle.
Father Josemaria Escriva (Charlie Cox, Stardust), the founder of Opus Dei, became eligible for canonization after his death in 1975. Some of you might remember Opus Dei from The Da Vinci Code, a reputable and sincere study of Catholicism, where one of the primary villains of the book is a flagellating monk stalking our hero with the Illuminati-like power of the Vatican behind him. There are so many conflicting statements as to the purpose of Opus Dei. In There Be Dragons, Escriva’s concept is that anyone can achieve holiness, they don’t necessarily need to be a priest. Joffe paints Escriva in lush oils, a beatific man just trying to do the right thing and survive the left-wing revolutionaries trying to overthrow the fascist regime and murder all the priests they could find. He only tells the tale of his harrowing and heroic journey to escape to France, and kind of leaves out all the later parts of his life where Father Josemaria defended Hitler — “Hitler couldn’t have killed six million Jews. It had to be four million at most” — and backed a bunch of right-wing dictatorships, including Franco’s reign in Spain. Then again, it’s hard to blame him when the Che’s of the world were trying to cut along the dotted collar.
Regardless, Joffe chooses to fictionalize the supposed true story of a journalist named Robert (Dougray Scott) who is writing an article on the history of the controversial Father Escriva. He contacts his estranged father, Manolo (Wes Bentley), who supposedly knew Father Escrivia. And so Manolo is composing a deathbed confession on tape for his son, which turns into a unnecessary subplot to the film when all of this could have been communicated via tape and not through unbearably overwrought spiritual lighting cues. The story then plays out in flashback, the two childhood friends twisting apart and coming back together, as we follow the two pathlines. As I said, Escriva’s the saint, the noble spirit trying to bring religion to the common man, and Manolo is the sinner, a cowardly and entitled scumbag, hired to be a spy for the right-wingers and infiltrate and report on the revolutionaries’ position.
I’m not sure what prompted Joffe to cast all white actors as his Spanish leads, with the exception that most Spanish actors probably spat in his face when he told them what he had planned — namely a film that painted Escriva as a misunderstood angel just trying to survive the revolutionaries who wanted him dead. I don’t want to malign the actors who do as best they can with a piss-poor script from Joffe. If I told you that this was a film about two best friends who have a falling out, and that it was about the Spanish Civil War and gave you the basic character names, you could pretty much build it from cliches. The Father Escriva portion is every WWII film you’ve seen about trying to get Jews out of Nazi-occupied Europe, only now it’s Spain during the Civil War. The Manolo part is even worse. He’s a spy who falls in love with Ildiko (Olga Kurylenko), a Hungarian footsoldier who falls hard for the charismatic revolutionary leader Oriol (Rodrigo Santoro). It plays out straight from the playbook for Scorned Cowardly Lover, Wartime.
Joffe himself was blacklisted for his left-wing beliefs, so it’s odd that he would choose to try to support the canonization of a controversial figure famous for backing right-wing governments. It’s even more odd that he would choose to do so in such an oddly daytime television way. There’s tons of speechifying, as if he photocopied pages from other, better screenplays and just changed the characters names. Strings and symphonies play behind almost every scene, with the requisite impassioned “NOOOOOO!” bellows from all the leads at one point or another. Joffe seems to have an almost obsessive need to shoot everything through glass — lenses, reflective surfaces, windows — it’s like he made a film strictly to demonstrate the metaphorical technique. The end result can’t possibly appeal to anyone — historophiles will be appalled, romantic swooners will be stilted, and fans of war will be disappointed by the Michael Bay school of explosions and dirtsplosion war scenes. When you saw There Be Dragons on a map, you knew to steer clear — the same applies with this film.