A matter of divine grace–and man’s will
ROLAND JOFFE’S “There Be Dragons” recalls the early years and young adulthood of St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. The modern-day saint’s life, as recalled by Joffe’s film, is a shining example of how sainthood is still eminently possible today, despite the times’ tumultuous distractions and challenges.
To galvanize his story, Joffe chooses to concentrate on the first half of the saint’s life, seeing it as the crucible that tested and refined his spirituality and complete service to God and man.
In the first part of his narrative, which focuses on St. Josemaria’s childhood, Joffe appends the “contextualizing” and heightening device of “parallel storytelling,” telling not just Josemaria’s story but also that of his best friend, Manolo, the son of wealthy parents.
As the two boys grow up, the different choices they make show that the final outcome of their lives is a matter of divine grace accepted on the one hand, and rejected on the other. So, the movie infers, is it in everybody’s life, so we should be judicious in living it, from day to day, knowing that the small decisions we make now could mean the difference between salvation or damnation later on.
Instructively, Joffe has both boys studying for the priesthood, until Manolo drops out and opts for a life of power and pelf, while Josemaria consecrates himself to vivifying the love of Jesus for all mankind, especially the suffering and downtrodden.
Plunged into the maelstrom of radical social change and civil war, the now young-adult Manolo and Josemaria assert their contrasting choices and convictions more passionately than ever, until they separately achieve their thematically instructive apotheosis.
Joffe’s contrasting focus on two “intersecting” protagonists instead of only one is occasionally illuminating, but it’s sometimes a distraction, because Manolo’s tumultuous life is more arresting then Josemaria’s more benign and selfless existence. Thus, Manolo’s story ultimately upstages the future saint’s experiences, and this compromises the film’s empathetic and inspirational effect on viewers. —Whose film is this, anyway?
Having said that, we should stress that “There Be Dragons” succeeds in dramatizing the roots and wellsprings of St. Josemaria’s key mission to make faith not just relevant but essential to modern life. Sanctity is not an abstract and abstracted goal, but the achievable reward for a life lived fully in service, from day to day, to God and man. Thus, Opus Dei’s inspiring commitment to work and prayer—to work as prayer—
is dramatically vivified.
Aside from Joffe’s insightful and committed storytelling, the film benefits from Charlie Cox’s felt and textured portrayal of the young-adult Josemaria Escriva. It’s an instructive combination of spirituality and strong physicality, and makes sanctity even more relevant to and “achievable” for Christians today.