In There Be Dragons, Josemaria Escriva is played by Charlie Cox -- "he with the handsome face and the worn-out shoes." (photo from www.blogseitb.com)
Some groups are promoting the movie There Be Dragons as a film about the life of St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. While this claim could attract many devout Catholics to the theaters, it could also tune out, and at the onset, those who fancy themselves free thinkers.
The pursuits of Escriva, however, only account for about a third of the movie (there are at least two other major characters). It is actually possible to see and appreciate it from wherever one comes, and through fresh eyes – religious inclinations notwithstanding.
The themes, after all, are not endemic to Catholics or to Opus Dei. They apply to humanity in general. In fact, according to the movie guide, it is “the fruit of an unlikely partnership between, on the one hand, an Oscar-nominated British director, a self-described wobbly agnostic, and a Spanish member of the Opus Dei."
A Spanish journalist, Roberto, is commissioned to write a book about Escriva. He goes back to his hometown Madrid to speak to a primary source: his father, Manolo, who knew the subject of his book. Manolo and Roberto, however, have not spoken to each other in years. Their relationship has always been problematic. Roberto decides to reach out to his dad, if only for the sake of the book. He cannot understand why Manolo remains uncooperative.
The old man is revealed to have been more than an acquaintance of Josemaria. They used to be friends, both coming from affluent families. But Josemaria's father’s chocolate business shuts down and the family becomes poor. Manolo's father, on the other hand, maintains his riches and dissuades him from maintaining his friendship with the now-poor Josemaria.
The two young men's paths cross several times later on in life. They become classmates in the seminary but Manolo (who just joined in deference to his religious mother) quits. When Manolo's father dies, Josemaria comes to comfort him – though he is shunned.
The civil war breaks out and Manolo agrees to spy for the fascists, infiltrating the communist movement. He however falls in love with a Hungarian comrade Ildiko who spurns him in favor of their leader, Oriol. Manolo the mole – and the jilted suitor – plants evidence of being a spy on the belongings of Ildiko, then pregnant with Oriol's child. Oriol is devastated that the woman he loves has betrayed their movement – and shoots himself. Ildiko gives birth in a farm and continues fighting. In a final battle, Manolo shoots Ildiko – granting her wish to be with her lover after death.
Manolo comes into contact with Josemaria in the mountains. He is supposed to shoot priests but decides to spare the latter's life.
The dying Manolo tells Roberto, for the first time, that he is Ildiko's child with Oriol.
The horrors of the Spanish civil war in the 1930s serve as the backdrop of the dark and complicated life of Manolo, the rich, privileged young man. He is taught early on to look after his own interests and nothing else. His father's death leaves him lost and he ends up spying, not knowing anymore whose side he is on. He experiences human love but also constant rejection. He gives in to vengefulness because of this.
Despite this, Manolo's decision to adopt the baby and raise him as his own, his refusal to shoot his old friend Josemaria and his final act of letting Ildiko go show glimpses that he is also capable of putting his own interest behind. Of course, these choices are themselves not pure. After all, while he acted as Roberto's legal father, he sucked at building a genuine bond with his son. In defying his "mandate" to shoot the priest Josemaria, Manolo killed his companion instead. And then, of course, in setting Ildiko free, he had to kill her as well.
Indeed the least troublesome and the most entertaining parts were those that involved the perenially holy Josemaria, played by british actor Charlie Cox, he with the handsome face and worn-out shoes. When he hears confession at the park to avoid detection, he pretends to wear a wedding ring. The woman telling him her sins ends up kissing his cheek instead. He is shown to have led a handful of young men who are not priests but who still seek to serve, especially in little, mundane ways. Every time he has a dilemma, the answers seem to come to him through interventions and little wonders – what looked like a tear on the statue of the Virgin Mary among the ruins, or the words of a young woman who suddenly disappears.
Of course, in the movie, all is well that ends well. At his death bed, Manolo clutches at the rosary that Josemaria has given him many years ago. Roberto forgives him.
There Be Dragons reminds us that whatever path we choose to take, we will always find ourselves in unchartered territory. There will be numerous opportunities for stumbling. In the end, it's what we do afterwards that matters. Nobody is good – or evil -- through and through.