Time to slay a few mythical dragons again?

As Roland Joffe’s new film about the founder of Opus Dei and the Spanish Civil War goes on release in cinemas across Spain, some members and supporters of Opus Dei are seeing signs of the recycling of old misinformation about the organisation which did the rounds when Dan Brown’s famously popular and notoriously ill-written novel, The DaVinci Code, hit book stalls a few years ago. The first whiff of this came courtesy of the London Independent which carried a story on Joffé’s movie last weekend.

Joanna Moorhead told us that nearly a decade after Dan Brown’s novel The DaVinci Code propelled it to global notoriety, Opus Dei is hitting back with a new movie that seeks to show its founder, Josemariá Escrivá, in a glowing light.

Rodrigo Santoro in There Be Dragons

However she quotes Elena Curti, deputy editor of the Catholic weekly The Tablet, who reminds us: “Brown’s portrayal was ridiculous, with the mad albino monk and all the strange goings-on. Because of Brown, Opus Dei has been given all sorts of opportunities to set the record straight – as it would see it – and this film is in its way the latest of those chances.”

Moorhead talks of Brown’s book, and the movie based on it, causing something of a PR fall out for Opus Dei. In fact, the organisation saw it as nothing of the sort and famously worked the image of making sweet lemonade out of bitter lemons on the back of the whole Da Vinci code global phenomenon. It generated such interest in Opus Dei that their information offices around the world were inundated with enquiries, enabling it to present the truth about itself on a scale it had never experienced before. Not exactly a PR fallout.

“There Be Dragons cost around $40m (£25m) to make,” Moorhead wrote, “ much of which came from Opus Dei members and sympathisers who were keen, in the wake of what was seen as disastrous PR fallout from The Da Vinci Code, to put their side of the story in a big-screen movie. The film’s backers are making much of the fact that Joffe is an agnostic Jew, but they admit that Opus Dei members had input into the film, and Opus Dei fielded one of its own priests, Fr John Wauck, as on-set adviser.”

“Admit”? Funny word that. Don’t you admit guilt, or admit that you are hiding something? The people behind this movie, members and supporters of Opus Dei – among whom I count myself – are not hiding anything. According to the organisation what is missing in Moorhead’s kind of reading of Opus Dei is the appreciation that members of Opus Dei are free agents. If some put money into a project it is on the basis of their own judgement. This was certainly one which drew their enthusiasm. To be fair to them, however, their investment should be seen as their own private business. The film is not financed by Opus Dei. As Dan Brown would say: Fact.  As for Fr. John Wauck’s role, Joffé wanted to do a good job and got him as an adviser in his own right. That was Joffé being professional. In the case of The Mission, for example, Joffe explained that he had American Jesuit Fr Daniel Berrigan as an advisor. Fr. Berrigan even got a walk-on part in the movie. That didn’t make it a Jesuit movie. None of these facts are “admitted”. They are all on the record.

The truth is that this film is very much Joffé’s own work. The script is his – having rejected an earlier script which some people very much attracted by Opus Dei and its founder had written. When Joffé put the film plan together it looked so good that the funding came together – some from people involved with Opus Dei who recognised a good thing when they saw it.

As Moorhead told it yesterday, There Be Dragons, opening in the US in May and expected to come to UK screens in the autumn, is “peppered with British film talent, including Charles Dance and Derek Jacobi, and in the lead role is the up-and-coming British actor Charlie Cox, who has just landed a part in the US hit series Boardwalk Empire. Other big names include Wes Bentley, whose credits include American Beauty, and Geraldine Chaplin.

Moorhead explains: “The film centres on the early life of Josemaría Escriva, the Spaniard who founded Opus Dei and was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 2002.

“Speaking in Madrid this week, Joffe said he had initially turned down the job of directing the film, but he reconsidered after seeing film footage of Escriva telling a girl who wanted to convert from Judaism to Catholicism that she shouldn’t do it, because it would be disrespectful to her parents. He said he was open-minded about Opus Dei when he took the project on. ‘What I discovered is that there’s no such single thing as Opus Dei; there are individuals who come together, and that’s what they call themselves,’ he said.

Charlie Cox as Josemaría Escrivá

“Cox, who was raised a Catholic although he is not a regular churchgoer, said he was taken on an Opus Dei retreat and spent time visiting Opus Dei houses in preparation for his role. ‘Before I got the part, I’d never heard of Josemaria and all I knew about Opus Dei was what was in Dan Brown’s book,’ he said. ‘When I told my friends what I was doing, a lot of them said I should be very careful, and many people’s response was one of fear. But no one had any real evidence to back up that reaction.’”

Moorhead says “critics of the organisation say its adherents are too closely wedded to Vatican edicts (sic) and refuse to use their own judgement.”

“Too closely wedded to Vatican edicts”?  Hello?  They are Catholics. By “edicts” does she mean Encyclical letters and the Catechism of the Catholic Church? “Refuse to use their own judgement”?  Is every act of faith not ultimately a personal judgement? She fails to tell us who the critics are or cite specific examples so in the end she is not saying much. As Charlie Cox might ask, have you any real evidence to back up that?

The US Catholic commentator John Allen, who wrote a book on Opus Dei six years ago, has called the new film “a sort of anti-Da Vinci Code” and says it makes Opus Dei “seem as heroic and sympathetic as Dan Brown’s potboiler, and subsequent film, made it appear weird and menacing”.

Surely we are in a better place if the record distorted by the gross fantasy of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code – purporting to be fact – is corrected to even some degree. One way or the other, there is more lemonade on the way, or better still, a good bottle of limoncello.

3 thoughts on “Time to slay a few mythical dragons again?

  1. Seán Ó Raghallaigh

    I think a lot of good will come from Joanna Moorehead’s article. It will make people curious to see the film. They will form their own judgement.

    An t-alt le Michael Kirk, tá sé dea-scríofa. His article is a good well-written riposte.

    Seán Ó R

  2. Andrea

    Yes! Finally an epic movie that has a glimpse of a Saint’s life. More of these stories really need to be told! Really excited that it’s coming to theaters!

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