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Story of a controversial saint

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DVD Review: There Be Dragons. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. 122 minutes. Rated PG-13 (violence).

Fire melts and purifies gold, as the Bible tells us. So it was with Father Josemaria Escriva, the quiet but earnest priest who grew up during its brutal Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. But this film about him is less than pure.

Escriva, who was declared a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002, founded the controversial organization Opus Dei. You may recall that a branch of Opus Dei was Dan Brown’s chosen villain in his book and movie “The Da Vinci Code.” Well, there really is an Opus Dei, and “There Be Dragons” shows its founder as a slender, gentle, almost impossibly good man who is yet troubled by feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy for God’s work.

The film actually takes the viewpoint not of Escriva himself, but of a journalist, Robert Torres, who is researching his life. That’s just as well. Not many of us can identify with a saint.

Robert has hit a dilemma: For some crucial details, he must travel to a hospital in Spain and visit Manolo, his dying father — with whom he hasn’t been on speaking terms in decades. Once there, Robert finds his father has a tape on his life waiting for his son.

We flash back to a Spanish village, with wooden wagons and horseless carriages signaling that this is the early 20th century. Manolo reveals that he and Josemaria grew up in the same town — Josemaria in a poor family, Manolo in a rich one. Manolo follows his harsh, callous father into a business career, while Josemaria hears the call of the priesthood.

The two grow into their vocations: Manolo turns selfish and materialistic, but Josemaria walks around in holey shoes in order to buy a hat for an old lady. “I choose to live in the real world,” Manolo snarks at his boyhood friend. Josemaria, undaunted, forms his lay group, whose name is Latin for “The Work of God.”

Indeed, the Church isn’t the safest employer in Spain at the time, when mobs of revolutionaries are killing priests on the streets. The Spanish Civil War is approaching, a clash of Fascists and Communists that historians see as a dress rehearsal for World War II.

Josemaria’s Opus Dei followers shift him from hideout to hideout, then plan to smuggle him out of Spain altogether. In an asylum, he is shaken when a girl asks why God would allow her to be raped. He is also troubled at the thought of deserting people in Madrid who depended on him.

For his part, Manolo poses as a Communist guerrilla while spying for the Fascists. He struggles with his own doubts — and jealousy — as he sees the idealism of a commander and his lover, a beautiful female fighter.

Yes, the childhood friends meet again in a strange way, just as Josemaria is about to escape over the Pyrenees Mountains. And in a verbal epilog, the dying Manolo drops a bomb on his won: revealing Robert’s own part in the story.

Vivid production values make There Be Dragons consuming in its realism. You can almost feel the roughness of the stone buildings and smell the sharpness of gunpowder. The battle scenes — clanking tanks, dive-bombing planes, guerrillas firing from behind sandbags — capture the panic and chaos of a war that killed as many as 600,000 people.

Scenes in Manolo’s office and an insane asylum are shot in stark, contrasty light and shadow, perhaps to show the battle of spiritual light and darkness. Director-writer Robert Joffe — who also made The Mission and The Killing Fields — made good use of his $36 million budget.

The script is a little more problematic. There’s an obvious subplot of a failed father who wants forgiveness and reconciliation, a frequent theme in recent movies. But telling a story about a man learning a story from his father — puts us twice removed from Escriva, the purported subject.

More important, There Be Dragons says nothing of recent criticisms of Opus Dei: its alleged secret ways, rightist politics and dictatorial control over members. Defenders and journalists have answered these, but they should have been mentioned in this film. If you can flash back, you can also flash forward.

After all, the battle is not just light against darkness. As Paul says in the New Testament, it’s also about avoiding “the appearance of evil.” It’s been a long time since Father Escriva had to be hidden. His modern followers — and filmmakers like Joffe — would do well not to hide anything else about the organization the saint founded.

James D. Davis

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Written by Jim Davis

January 15, 2012 at 4:51 am

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