There Be Dragons: Review

A jigsaw of intimate relationships and betrayals during wartime with more than a few pieces missing.

British writer-director Roland Joffé dips a toe into explosive material — the Spanish Civil War, betrayal, sainthood, Opus Dei — but all these big themes and characters slip from his grasp.

The interlocking stories of a saint and a sinner during the bloody Spanish Civil War of the 1930s has plenty of dramatic potential but its characters and themes slip slowly away from writer-director Roland Joffé’s grasp in There Be Dragons. This is all too often the case in Joffé’s films. They are never as deep-dish as they initially seem.

After a spectacular debut with The Killing Fields in 1984, the British director has tackled any number of international movies that try to deal with big themes and ideas set against historical backdrops such as The Mission, City of Joy and Fat Man and Little Boyonly to dash hopes with rote characters and misfired drama.

There Be Dragons, which opens in Spain well before its domestic debut in May, has the additional problem of a title that fails to communicate the film’s aspirations to potential viewers. So the English-language Samuel Goldwyn release can expect only modest box office returns in North America specialty venues.

There Be Dragons is particularly frustrating because the Spanish Civil War is so seldom dealt with in any depth by films. Guillermo Del Toro’s magical duo, Pan’s Labyrinth andThe Devil’s Backbone, and Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom come to mind. Yet this is still fertile ground for a filmmaker anxious to explore issues of morality in war, forgiveness, matters of conscience and families riven by civil strife.

All of which Joffé has in his crosshairs here but misses these targets by a mile. Two familiar storytelling techniques are featured in his script: those of intertwined stories covering many years and a grown child digging into a parent’s past only to discover hidden skeletons. In this instance, however, one of those characters became a real-life saint.

Spanish-born, London-based journalist Robert Torres (Dougray Scott) is asked by his publisher to write a book about canonized priest Josemaria Escriva, the founder of the controversial Catholic organization known as Opus Dei. Then Robert suddenly finds out his estranged father, Manolo (Wes Bentley), was a childhood friend of Escriva (Charlie Cox). Born in the same town, they even attended the same seminary together!

Manolo, who is dying, refuses to see his son when he comes to Madrid. Nevertheless, he begins to dictate his “memoirs” into an old tape recorder, which sends the movie into flashbacks from 1911 through the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), where the country tore itself apart in a proxy war between European left- and right-wing forces in a run-up to World War II.

The film’s problems lie in these flashbacks. Although the best of friends in a tiny Spanish town as little boys, the two drift apart mostly due to class differences between Escriva’s poor family and Manolo’s rich, factory-owning (and therefore fascist) family. They even give each other bloody noses at the seminary.

Escriva’s life path heads directly to sainthood while the fictional Manolo is from early adulthood not just a sinner but a steaming pile of … well, you know how fascists get portrayed in movies.

Joffé never comes to terms with why his two protagonists take such divergent paths.

Good seed, bad seed? Good father, bad father? One poor, one rich? Who knows? The memoirs — which show things Manolo could never have known or experienced — skip over the formative years in the rush to get to the war without even a superficial examination of what makes these two tick.

During the war, Manolo falls madly in love with a Hungarian revolutionary Ildiko (Olga Kurylenko). But his story plays like a perverse version of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls since Manolo all along is a fascist spy with the republican guerrillas and Ildiko saves her love for their courageous leader, Oriol (Rodrigo Santoro).

The movie tries to have it both ways with its rather despicable protagonist: Manolo feels a certain camaraderie with and affection for the republicans. But he is still his father’s son and betrays them anyway, leading to unforeseen consequences that reverberate dramatically in the life of his horrified son, who only now learns his tragic family history.

All the movie’s key relationships are fuzzy — Manolo and his son, the son and his wife (Golshifteh Farahani) and most of all Manolo and Escriva. Other than a brief childhood friendship, nothing really connects these two stories. The movie imagines that Manolo saved Eciva’s life during the war without anyone but himself being witness to this. (Given his constant duplicity, why should anyone believe this anyway?) The stories move forward on parallel tracks that never really intersect or even reflect one another in any meaningful way.

It’s almost as if Joffé were determined to dip a toe into explosive material — civil war, sainthood, Opus Dei — but never court controversy. As two of his producers are members of Opus Dei, the latter is understandable, but the approach to the Spanish Civil War is conventional. Manolo says the strife was never as simple as fascists vs. communists but you’d never know it from this movie. The republicans are all noble and long-suffering while government forces and its thugs are a thieving, priest-killing, corrupt, power-hungry bunch.

Production values in Spain and Argentina are superb, which allows Joffé to explore a different kind of killing fields that ranges from the picturesque countryside to the vicious street-by-street battle for Madrid itself.

Opens: March 25 in Spain; May 6 in U.S. (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Cast: Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Dougray Scott, Rodrigo Santoro, Jordi Molla, Derek Jacobi, Golshifteh Farahani, Geraldine Chaplin, Unax Ugalde, Ana Torrent, Charles Dance
Director, screenwriter: Roland Joffé
Producer: Ignacio Gomez-Sancha, Roland Joffé, Ignacio Nunez
Executive producers: Dámaso Ezpeleta, Andrew Cullen, Rusty Lemorande
Director of photography: Gabriel Beristain
Production designer: Eugenio Zanetti
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Costume designer: Yvonne Blake
Editor: Richard Nord
No rating, 118 minutes