It seems like a lifetime ago that two-time Academy Award-nominated British filmmaker Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields, The Mission) created a historically significant drama as riveting as the stories behind the Cambodian genocide in 1975 and the Christianization of indigenous South Americans in the 18th century. Despite an early flourishing career, Joffé, whose last film was the appalling horror movie Captivity, continues his string of disappointments with There Be Dragons, a hokey Spanish Civil War epic better suited for a series on daytime TV rather than the silver screen.
The film opens in present time following Robert Torres (Dougray Scott), a Spanish journalist doing research for a book on Roman Catholic priest and Opus Dei founder Josemaría Escrivá (Charlie Cox). Robert begins by questioning his estranged and now dying father Manolo (Wes Bentley), whom he learns attended seminary school with the canonized priest prior to the social and political unrest unleashed across Europe in the mid-1930s as a result of fascism and communism.
“If you want to hear of the past, I’ll tell you,” Manolo says melodramatically to his son as he grows weaker by the day. “But I warn you, there be dragons.” These metaphorical dragons — or in this case, skeletons in the closet — are supposed to help reveal the motivation behind man’s acceptance of a sacred calling. But Joffé’s misguided script Bible-thumps rather than explains anything concretely, while employing more than the occasional cliché.
Through choppy flashbacks and badly written and performed narration (it literally sounds like we’re listening to a stale history lesson taught by Jack Black in Nacho Libre), Joffé guides audiences on a quest beginning with the childhood friendship between Manolo and Josemaría, which leads to the two young men taking separate paths during their divine studies. While Josemaría is called on by God to lead his people to enlightenment, Manolo joins the fascist military as a spy and falls in love with Ildiko (Olga Kurylenko), a Hungarian revolutionary fighter unreceptive to his advances.
Relying on ham-fisted dialogue (“Slaying your demons is never easy. Sometimes it’s better to get someone to slay them for you.”), Dragons is a one-sided affair that feels like a counter response to films like The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, which, of course, don’t characterize members of the Opus Dei in the most amiable ways. It’s unfortunate Joffé fails to capture real emotion and passion within the religious narrative. Without that perspective, there’s no way he can breathe any life into the biopic, much less fire.
There Be Dragons
Dir. and writ. Roland Joffé; feat. Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Dougray Scott, Unax Ugalde, Olga Kurylenko, Pablo Lapadula, Rodrigo Santoro. (PG-13)