Supersize view of god and war
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, May 6, 2011
“There Be Dragons” has class written all over it. From the hoity-toity title, which first appears in the original Latin “Hic Sunt Dracones,” to the faded black-and-white photographs that run under the closing credits, reminding us that the film was inspired by true events — namely the life of St. Josemaria Escriva — the movie has the epic, hand-oiled sheen of a Major Motion Picture.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I like grandeur and richly nuanced storytelling. I also like lobster bisque. But I don’t want to drink a gallon of it in a single sitting.
“There Be Dragons” is like fine wine, served in a Big Gulp cup. A little is very nice. A lot is way too much.
How big is big? The movie, which clocks in at two hours and two minutes, is big enough for not one but two aphoristic definitions of life. On the one hand, we’re told, early on and vaguely “Forrest Gump”-like, life is like the humble cocoa bean: With patience, skill, hard work and love, one can “unleash the divine flavors hidden within.” On the other hand, as someone else tells us, near the end, life is also like a thread in an embroidery: “Wound together in place and time, difficult to see the pattern until it’s all finished — if it ever is finished.”
Well, which is it?
Set during the Spanish Civil War, “Dragons” tells the story of two men: Josemaria (Charlie Cox), a Roman Catholic priest who would go on to canonization after founding the Opus Dei religious organization, and his childhood friend Manolo (Wes Bentley). When war breaks out, both men find themselves going undercover, in a manner of speaking, on different sides of the same struggle.
Manolo, a right-winger who is philosophically allied with the fascists, infiltrates a brigade of communist rebels as a spy. Josemaria, for his part, is forced to masquerade as a layman in order to avoid being shot by the communists as a member of the elite, right-wing clergy. This, despite the fact that he is, by nature, more a supporter of the working class.
How ironic. Also, how complicated.
Fortunately, the politics of 1930s Spain don’t have much to do with the central story. Neither, for that matter, does the relationship between Josemaria and Manolo. The film’s most significant relationship is the one between Manolo, who narrates the film from the vantage point of an old, regret-plagued man in 1982, and his estranged son, Robert (Dougray Scott), a writer who is researching a book about Josemaria.
Naturally, there is also a beautiful woman from the past (Olga Kurylenko), whose relationship with Manolo in the 1930s will prove pivotal to the film’s dramatic — or make that melodramatic — climax.
What doesn’t this movie have? The fog of war? Check. The sweep of history? Check. Panoramic scenery? Unrequited love? Friends torn asunder? A deathbed conversion? Dark secrets revealed? English-speaking actors doing heavy foreign accents? It’s got it all, wrapped in a handsome package by two-time Oscar-nominated British writer-director Roland Joffe (“The Killing Fields” and “The Mission”) and buffed to a fare-thee-well, until it’s so slippery you can’t get a grip on it.
And that’s the film’s real problem. There’s so much stuff stuffed into it that there’s no room left to dream, to wonder, to question, to ponder, to turn things over in your head. Everything is handed to you on a sterling silver platter, with mandatory seconds. A movie, like a good meal, should leave one at least a little bit hungry.
Contains scenes of war and violence and brief, mild obscenity.