Intriguing title aside, the mythical fire-breathers in “There Be Dragons” are strictly metaphorical. In both ambition and approach, “Dragons” echoes Roland Joffe’s career-defining early work as he brings sweeping production values to overtly Christian subject matter, tracking the life of Opus Dei founder and modern-day Catholic saint Josemaria Escriva against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. What’s changed in the quarter-century since “The Mission” is the fact that such a classically styled David Lean-like vision now finds itself relegated to arthouse screens, while comicbook heroes and CG dragons crowd the venues where this epic-scale opus might have found a mainstream following.
Though many will see the film as a welcome return for Joffe, the director spent much of his career putting distance between himself and his first two features, as the Oscar attention around “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission” overshadowed most of his subsequent projects. Overlong and unnecessarily burdened by a clunky present-day framing device, “Dragons” may not be perfect, but it plays to the helmer’s strengths, demonstrating an increasingly rare sense of scope and pageantry best served by the bigscreen.
To some extent, “Dragons” feels like a relic of an earlier time when taking a page from recent religious history wouldn’t have given producers pause. This celluloid canonization of Escriva managed to escape such second-guessing since two of its backers, Ignacio Gomez-Sancha and Ignacio Nunez, are members of Opus Dei. Though far from propagandistic, the pic goes a long way to correct the sensationalistic smearing the org received at the hands of “The Da Vinci Code,” primarily by focusing on the spirit in which Escriva founded the movement, rather than the more controversial accusations surrounding its secrecy and alleged support of Franco’s fascist regime.
Scripting the film himself, Joffe finds an odd entry point into the story, inventing a childhood rival whose estranged son (Dougray Scott) is researching a biography on the Spanish saint. Plastered in old-age makeup, Wes Bentley plays regret-filled Manolo Torres, who grew up and entered seminary with Josemaria (Charlie Cox, making good on the promise of his likable “Stardust” perf) but ultimately took a completely antithetical life path, choosing politics, lust and violence over his friend’s message of everyday spirituality.
“Dragons” lingers too long on the early days, in which younger actors play Manolo (Felipe Agote) and Josemaria (Juan Cruz) in a series of oversimplified formative influences, such as a schmaltzy chocolate-tasting with a Jewish factory owner (Derek Jacobi) followed by a poignant but protracted deathbed connection in which Josemaria demonstrates the first stirrings of a belief that men can honor God regardless of their religious persuasion. Manolo’s jealousy-tinged narration aims to position him as Salieri to Josemaria’s Mozart, but instead draws attention away from a character who may not be as inherently dramatic as a biopic demands.
Things pick up with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. While Josemaria seeks the church’s approval for his unorthodox new order, Manolo takes a more central role, fighting alongside the communist rebels (led by charismatic Rodrigo Santoro) in a coup that saw church and state as corrupt partners. Through a series of personal tests, Josemaria cements his relationship with God, while Manolo falls in love with a stunning Hungarian freedom fighter (“Quantum of Solace’s” Olga Kurylenko) — just one of numerous parallels between the principal characters’ divergent lives.
Clearly, the common thread is one of revolution: While Josemaria challenges longstanding aspects of Catholic doctrine, inviting women and married couples into a movement that seeks to imbue each daily task with spiritual reverence, Manolo finds himself embroiled in bloody political upheaval, at one point finding his old classmate in his crosshairs.
Shooting primarily in Argentina, Joffe and production designer Eugenio Zanetti take great care in re-creating the story’s century-old Spanish backdrop, ranging from 1911 to 1936’s impressively staged Battle of Madrid. These extended flashbacks feel all the more convincing thanks to Stephen Warbeck’s rousing score, and pro sound work all around. The framing narrative proves more distracting, including a key twist that adds little to the story, but builds to a satisfying emotional payoff between sinner and saint — one of two scenes that dare to invoke supernatural forces in Joffe’s otherwise straightforward historical retelling.