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.



For Hollywood, it seems, history is the new rock’n’roll. Anne Applebaum, writing in the Washington Post recently on the spate of films centered on historical events or historical characters puts it down to the phenomenon of reality TV. She quotes Peter Morgan, who wrote the script for The Queen – a movie focused on the aftermath of the death of Princess Dianna: “If people need to explain what a film is about, the film stands very little chance of surviving. Reality is a brand which people can sell” he says.” Some of the biggest films on release over the past year have been such – the story of the Harvard student who invented Facebook, the story of a stuttering king – The King’s Speech, Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, and a story for which Applebaum was herself a historical consultant, The Way Back.

But Hollywood and history are strange and uneasy bedfellows and not everyone is happy with the progeny they produce. Hollywood has played fast and loose with historical truth on so many occasions that we approach new movies based on history with not a little suspicion. But they keep coming and the latest soon to appear on a screen near you will be Roland Joffé’s new film, There Be Dragons – which some anticipate will be a return to form for the director of two of the most memorable films of the 1980s, The Mission and The Killing Fields, both again based on real events in history.

Joffé’s film, starring Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Dougray Scott and Olga Kurylenko, is set against the background of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the life of a canonised saint, Josemaría Escrivá (Cox), the founder of Opus Dei. The genre into which this movie fits, however, has much more in common with the historical novel than with films purporting to be a narrative account of historical events. In this there is a very open mixture of fact and fiction and without doubt the film-maker is setting out to show us what moves, inspires and shapes lives rather than give us a dry factual account of events. In every sense this is very much an auteur work since Joffé not only directs but also conceived and wrote the screenplay.

Applebaum’s musing on history and cinema are in the context of The Way Back, the recently released Peter Weir film based on a “true story” of prisoners escaping from Stalin’s gulag back in the 1940s. The original story came in the form of a book called The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz, a Gulag survivor. It was a controversial book because while it appeared to be a first-hand account of Rawicz’s own story it later transpired that it was a story told to him by another escapee.

But, Applebaum argues that the story, certainly as portrayed in the film, is “true” in every way that matters. “Many of the camp scenes are taken directly from Soviet archives and memoirs. The starving men scrambling for garbage; the tattooed criminals, playing cards for the clothes of other prisoners; the narrow barracks; the logging camp; the vicious Siberian storms. Among the very plausible characters are an American who went to work on the Moscow subway and fell victim to the Great Terror of 1937, a Polish officer arrested after the Soviet Union’s 1939 invasion of Poland and a Latvian priest whose church was destroyed by the Bolsheviks.”

Joffé argues for the same kind of truth in his There Be Dragons, a truth built into the fictional story of London-based investigative journalist Robert Torres (Scott) who tries to unravel a deadly mystery nearly 70 years old that links his father to the founder of a Catholic organization called Opus Dei, only to discover that the shocking truth is far more than he bargained for.

Roland Joffé describes his experience of bringing the story to the screen in the following terms: “There Be Dragons was a wonderful experience that paralleled the one I had making The Mission. It is an intimate story of love and forgiveness set during one of the most bitter wars of the 20th century. Yet the themes of the film are as relevant today as ever, and I am hopeful that audiences will embrace them in that spirit.”

The film, made for $35 million, is being distributed in the US by Samuel Golden Films and is being released there on May 6. According to Meyer Gottlieb, president of the company: “We feel privileged to be working with such an acclaimed filmmaker in Roland Joffé and look forward to bringing There Be Dragons to audiences everywhere. This beautifully mounted and executed film based on true events is moving and inspirational, and it will make moviegoers cheer and applaud.”

The film has been made in English but rather unusually is having its dubbed Spanish language version released first. Its Spanish distributors have pushed and succeeded in getting it released there on screens across the country from 25 March. The release in Spain is timely because 2011 marks the 75th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War. During this brutal conflict thousands of priests and nuns were persecuted and murdered. How a still-divided Spanish society will react to this retelling of those events is something which will be watched with great interest.

The film’s themes are already resonating with people of all faiths who must make daily choices to “conquer the dragons” – the allusion of the title – they encounter by avoiding conflict in favor of embracing opportunities for forgiveness. Previewers of the movie have described it as “a deeply moving depiction of the triumph of love and forgiveness”.

Motive Entertainment, the company that championed films like Mel Gibson’s The Passion and Disney’s Chronicles of Narnia, have been contracted to promote the film across the US and further afield in the Anglophone world.

See trailers: http://www.youtube.com/user/therebedragonsfilm

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  .

Filmstalker: Roland Joffé’s There Be Dragons trailer online

Roland Joffé’s There Be Dragons trailer online

FILMSTALKER writes:ThereBeDragons.jpgThat sounds impressive, Roland Joffé’s There Be Dragons, instantly you should be pricking up your ears. Then there’s the fact that the film follows two friends, one who turns to war and the other who becomes the founder of Opus Dei, Josemaria Escriva, and you should be even more interested.


via Filmstalker: Roland Joffé’s There Be Dragons trailer online.