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.

There Be Dragons Gala Premiere in Madrid

The world premiere of Roland Joffé’s new film, takes place in Madrid tonight, March 23. In large part due to a grassroots marketing campaign in Spain, the film has sold out across 360 screens in 300 cinemas this weekend.

Joffé himself attended a special screening in Rome on Monday night and talked intimately about the impact of the film and his hope for the message it contained. The film spans a period of almost 100 years but is set mainly in the period of the fratricidal Spanish Civil War. Its focus, however, is not the action of the war itself – although there is no shortage of that action in the background to the central drama. That drama  revolves around the lives of the two central characters, one of whom is Saint Josemaría Escriva, the other a fictional childhood friend. In essence the film is a study of two human responses to a world in which these two men find themselvs enveloped in hatred, violence and persecution.

Joffé spoke to the Roman audience of 150 Vatican officials and others of how in an era of ideological conformity Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, had the courage to tell people to think for themselves, and like Nelson Mandela in South Africa brought healing to Spain.

He said St Josemaría Escrivá  “answered the question that his time gave him, which is that when politics was industrialising and the world was splitting into rigid opposing camps a young priest stood up in Spain and refused to condemn.”

Joffe with Wes Bentley and Olga Kurylenko

In this way, said Joffé, “Josemaría extended what I would call the warm embrace of the Church to people who weren’t Christian as well  … We are all in this world together. That was an extraordinary thing to do, and the power of that message I think is extraordinary and relevant to us.”

The Spanish Civil War (1936-39)  left half a million dead and continues to divide Spain. In the movie the young Fr Escrivá tells his followers in the newly-created Opus Dei that they must forgive and not take sides – even those who are wrong.

The UK based media service, Catholic Voices, reporting on the Rome screening said that among the audience in the North-American College, there were 11 cardinals, eight bishops, 14 monsignori, and 24 ambassadors, as well as representatives from movements such as Focolare and Sant’Egidio as well as Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans.

Also in the audience were the writer and director Susanna Tamaro and the film composer Ennio Morricone, who composed the theme to one of Joffé’s 1980s epics, The Mission. After the screening, Morricone said: “With this film Roland Joffe confirms his greatness as an intense and profound director of the highest quality”.

Tamaro described the film as “powerful, very well filmed, and dramatically very effective”. By choosing to tell the story of opposing paths taken by two childhood friends, Joffé “brings out the importance of freedom which God gave us to try to reduce the power of evil in the world”.

A murderous fratricidal war

Tamaro added that the film had the power “to do great good for the new generations deprived of great figures to admire and emulate”.

Joffé told them “it would be wonderful” if There Be Dragons, helped the 21st century to be seen as “the century of reconciliation”, in which “we began once again to discover our innate humanity that exists in all of us” and to heal the wounds of the 20th century wars.

He added: “It’s wonderful that President Mandela was capable of doing that in South Africa, and it’s wonderful to me that Josemaría Escrivá as a young man fought for the importance of that, and carried the Christian message in such a remarkable way that I who am, I confess, a rather wishy-washy agnostic, found myself standing in total admiration and driven to want to do my best for this movie.”

Joffé was introduced by the film’s executive producer, Ignacio Gómez-Sancha, who in 2008 left his job as general counsel to the Spanish stock exchange to raise the $40m budget for the film, attracting more than 100 investors from 10 different countries to his private equity fund, Mount Santa Fe.

Some of the investors, like Gómez-Sancha, are members of Opus Dei, but the organization itself has had no role in the movie. Joffé, who wrote the script, had complete creative freedom.

He told the audience at the Vatican that he rejected the idea of a “biopic” or biographical portrait of Escrivá. “No saint would be saying, ‘make a film about me’, he told the audience.  “But he might be saying, ‘make a film about what I thought about what I loved; about what drove me.’”

Among those watching last night was Mgr Luis Clavell, a Spanish priest of Opus Dei who worked closely with St Josemaría in Rome over many years. Mgr Calvell, who spent many hours sharing anecdotes with Joffé when the director was researching the script, said the portrayal of the Opus Dei founder in the fim was “excellent”, capturing the saint’s “strength of character”, as well as his capacity for love and forgiveness.

Because St Josemaría was naturally hot-tempered, his capacity for forgiveness was heroic, said Mgr Clavell. He recalled how, after the Spanish Civil War, a taxi driver had told the founder of Opus Dei it was a pity he had not been killed along with other priests.  St Josemaría’s reaction was to pay the driver and add a large tip to spend on a gift for his children.


A Song Which Every Age Needs To Sing

Germaine Greer, for whom I’ve always had a soft spot, maybe a misguided one, once did a television programme on the Psalms. It was a slaughterhouse of a programme. I can’t remember her liking them for anything – neither their poetry, their power, their antiquity nor their mystery. They were evidence for her of man’s creation of a terrible God.

Her reading of the Psalms saw nothing in them other than weapons used by men to wield a terrible power over their fellowmen.  What a pity. But then if you reject God and substitute him with your own fantasy, what have you left? You lose all sense of the unfathomable mystery of his goodness, mercy and fearsome power. You fail utterly to see that the fearsomeness of God is a radically different thing from the fearsomeness of man. Inevitably you end up concentrating on power as a terrible and terrifying thing, conjuring up all the images and memories of the deeds of any or all of the monstrous regiment of human beings who have been corrupted by too much power down through history.

But read God as he is, as the divinity that we can only comprehend as “through a glass darkly”, and our whole reading of the psalms becomes a totally different experience.

Take just the second song of the Psalter as an example, one singled out for special opprobrium by Ms. Greer. Read it as a mythological text and it will certainly confound you. At best it will be a text depicting an epic tribal struggle between ancient peoples. At its worst it will be a call to arms dangerously akin to a contemporary jihad.  But read it as the Word of God, as the Word revealed to us in the total context of Sacred Scripture and Tradition and you have a text which speaks to all ages and speaks overwhelmingly of God as the loving Father from whom all fatherhood takes its name. It certainly reveals an all-powerful God to us. But with power to what end? It reveals a God who has the power to conquer the world – as in “the world, the flesh and the devil” – and power above all to make us sons of God, heirs to the kingdom of heaven. It is a song which every age needs to sing, for in every age – and in our own par excellence – there is the temptation that we are losing that battle.

The Church’s chosen antiphon opening the recitation of this psalm sets the tone of confidence which pervades it: His kingdom is a kingdom of all ages, and all kings shall serve and obey him. The opening line then asks a question which never ceases to be relevant. Why this tumult among nations, among peoples this useless murmuring?  This is followed by the familiar spectacle of folly we see around us every day: They arise, the kings of the earth, princes plot against the Lord and his Anointed.


Then comes the harder bit, the bit that gave Germaine so much trouble, the call to action. “Come, let us break their fetters, come let us cast off their yoke”.  He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord is laughing them to scorn. Then he will speak in his anger, his rage will strike them with terror. “It is I who have set up my king on Zion, my holy mountain”.  But what Germaine misses is that this is more than a text of its time, written in history and in the spirit of its time. It is that but it is more than that. It is a text for all time, about all time, and with a meaning that utterly transcends the spirit of its time, the spirit of monarchic conflict between ancient tribes in the Middle East. It is a text about the Messiah, the Saviour of the human race, coming to effect the adoption of all members of that race as children of his Father, God. I will announce the decree of the Lord: the Lord said to me: “You are my Son. It is I who have begotten you this day. Ask and I shall bequeath you the nations, put the ends of the earth in your possession. With a rod of iron you will break them, shatter them like a potter’s jar”. In truth we break ourselves when we indulge ourselves in all this useless murmuring and plot against the Lord and his Anointed. What, indeed, is all this talk about a “broken society” in modern Ireland, Britain and America, but a fulfillment of these ancient prophesies?

St. Josemaría Escrivá reads this Psalm as a profound expression of God’s paternity, God’s intervention in human history to save us from ourselves. “The kindness of God our Father has given us his Son for a king. When he threatens he becomes tender, when he says he is angry he gives us his love. You are my son: this is addressed to Christ — and to you and me if we decide to become another Christ, Christ himself. Words cannot go so far as the heart, which is moved by God’s goodness. He says to us: You are my son. Not a stranger, not a well‑treated servant, not a friend — that would be a lot already. A son! He gives us free access to treat him as sons, with a son’s piety and I would even say with the boldness and daring of a son whose Father cannot deny him anything.” (Christ Is Passing By, 185)


The psalm ends with a warning. If it is a warning which seems to contain a threat, it is one which we must again read in the context of all of Revelation and the history of our Redemption. Now, O kings, understand, take warning, rulers of the earth; Serve the Lord with awe and trembling, pay him with your homage. Lest he be angry and you perish; for suddenly his anger will blaze. Christ did make a whip of cords and did throw the traders out of the temple. But when those traders then turned on him later he went like a lamb to his death. Here is a mystery which we can only be in awe of but which the last line of the psalm gives us the key to: Blessed are they who put their trust in God. Without that trust we will remain in the muddle in which we found Germaine Greer when she attempted to interpret this great Messianic psalm without the help of its Author.

Don’t expect a retread of the lurid “…Da Vinci Code”

“There Be Dragons” is not intended to be the cinematic equivalent of a “poster” or “user’s manual” for Opus Dei, Joffe said. But viewers also should not expect a retread of the lurid conspiracy theories propagated by “The Da Vinci Code” and its film adaptation.

“I think Dan Brown (the author of “The Da Vinci Code”) misused Opus Dei … in a rather unpardonable way,” Joffe said. “I hope, in some ways, this movie will set the balance straight, but that’s not the objective of the movie. I just think it’s maybe a byproduct.”

Go to http://www.thesoutherncross.org/headline3.asp for more of this interview with Roland Joffe.

“There Be Dragons” – make this go viral…

Roland Joffe’s new film, There Be Dragons, due for worldwide release in the Spring, has moved its promotion machine up a few gears. See the updated website and spread the news if you can. It all offers an intriguing insight into how movies are promoted in advance of release. And, to say the least, the movie looks very promising. http://www.therebedragonsfilm.com  .