But 'dragons' in the movie I was fortunate to watch in its advance screening pertained to nothing of the sort. Pursuit of missions, however, and the call to be lion-hearted in some way were indeed somewhere in there.
There Be Dragons, written and directed by the same man behind the acclaimed The Mission and The Killing Fields, revolves around the life of a saint who lived and died not too long ago -- the 1900s -- thereby making the situations he experienced and the circumstances he found himself in not too different from today's. I take some kind of reassurance from the fact that this "saint of the ordinary" (as St. Josemaria Escriva has come to be known) lived through contemporary music and cinematic trends, had a glimpse of the uniting effect of things such as the Olympic games, saw how nations became divided during the 20th century's two world wars, and basically saw the changing lifestyles of families and entire societies before he died in 1975. But through it all, he lived his faith and showed us the way to do it -- and he was right in the middle of the modern world, not behind some monastery's walls centuries ago.
In fact, in the movie Escriva is set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil war of the 1930s and though not really a war movie, There Be Dragons brings out a number of elements that result from man turning against fellow countryman. One scene that I find immensely striking depicts the Spanish priest and his companions after they witness the execution of another priest -- Fr. Lazaro -- by the anti-clerical Republicans. The contrast in how they respond to the scene they had just witnessed is fascinating, with everyone understandably enraged by the injustice happening around them, and everyone except Escriva calling the murderers "swines." The priest acknowledges their fury but points out things they need to hear.
"Not swines -- men, like us."
"Men?! What did Fr. Lazaro ever offer them but love?!"
"We have to pray, first pray for Fr. Lazaro and then for his murderers."
"But they're murderers, and they took pleasure in it!"
And Escriva confronts the young man, quite forcefully: "What do you want to do to them if you could, truthfully, and wouldn't you take pleasure in it?"
Faith is a gift, he tells his disheartened companions, "and God has called us to manifest it in love here on earth. Unwavering love for every child of God no matter who it is, no matter what side, no matter what circumstances."
"Even when they are wrong?" one of them asks, incredulous.
"Yes! Even if they are wrong."
Tall order? Certainly, and it is this theme of love and forgiveness -- even when circumstances make them nearly impossible -- that resonated with me. These days, when the news day after day is about shootings, bombings, insurgents killing hostages, fathers taking their children's lives, and siblings fighting over seemingly petty things, forgiveness sounds like such an alien idea. So, hearing words such as those uttered by the Spanish priest in the film was a welcome and refreshing change. And, it doesn't stop there, for the movie also shows how the power of forgiveness breaks the chains of the past.
Much as St. Josemaria is the central character, it is his friend Manolo Torres who comes out being the focus as the story unfolds, for it is around Manolo and his son, Roberto, that much of the story's crucial elements revolve (let me point out that writer and director Roland Joffe wrote the fictional father and son characters into the story). It is, after all, the journalist Roberto who sets off doing research on Escriva for a book and inadvertently makes discoveries linking the priest to his father. The synopsis actually shows partly why the tagline being used for the movie is those words attributed to Oscar Wilde -- "Every saint has a past. Every sinner has a future." Okay, it's a bit unusual that I'm providing the synopsis midway through this piece, but here it is just the same:
The film tells the story of London-based investigative journalist Roberto Torres (Dougray Scott), who visits Spain to research a book about Josemaría Escrivá (Charlie Cox), the controversial founder of Opus Dei. But, Roberto hits a wall, both professionally and personally, when his most promising source—his own father, Manolo Torres (Wes Bentley) turns out to be his least cooperative one. Roberto begins to unearth his father’s toxic secrets when he learns that Manolo was not only born in the same Spanish town as Josemaría, but, that they were childhood friends and attended the same seminary. The two men take radically different paths in life, with Josemaría dedicating his life to his faith while Manolo is swept into the brutal and tumultuous Spanish Civil War. Manolo descends into a dangerous and jealous obsession when the beautiful Hungarian revolutionary Ildiko (Olga Kurylenko) doesn’t return his affections and instead gives herself to the courageous military leader, Oriol (Rodrigo Santoro).
As Roberto continues to unearth the secrets of Josemaría’s life and Manolo’s mysterious anger, their overlapping journeys are revealed with the truths and sorrows of their past choices, which compels Manolo to confront his own secret with one last opportunity of forgiveness.
Intriguing, huh? It suffices to say that the film is mighty unpredictable. Let me say, too, that parents will find in the story moving scenes that zero in on the need to forgive and ask for forgiveness not only in matters concerning social and political struggles, but in terms of their relationships within the family. As someone in the movie said, "When you forgive, you set someone free -- yourself."
A week or so after watching the premiere, I chanced upon a YouTube video that had someone involved in the movie's production saying that There Be Dragons isn't for any sole group of people, like only for believers or only for Asians. The movie is "100% about humanity" and it touched the hearts of everyone on whom the producers "tested" the film. Even director Joffe said that it's a story for "every human being" -- who feels, who thinks, who has a family, who feels angry, feels the need for revenge, who feels love, wants love or needs love. Well, is there anyone who has not felt infuriated or who does not yearn to be loved, even just a little bit? Now, after thinking more about the film, I agree that it is for everyone -- because the sentiments presented in it and the struggles that all of us wrestle with at some point in our lifetime -- are universal.
Movies have come and gone, and many have touched on similar themes. Jealousy, hate, revenge, violence. But most of them end there, with little or no elements presented as to how true redemption can be found. They're all about dragon-slaying -- the roaring, action-packed kind. But facing one's personal dragons -- challenges, whether it's envy, cowardice, isolation, a weak faith... -- and slaying them are probably what this movie will make you ponder. That, and how saints and sinners fully live their humanity as they come to terms with their past and carve out their future.
* There Be Dragons will be shown from November 9-15 at SM North, Trinoma, SM Megamall, Glorietta 4, South Festival Mall, SM Southmall.