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Movie Review: There Be Dragons (PG-13)

dragons‘There Be Dragons’ emits lots of emotions and explosions, but unwisely keeps viewers away from the fray – and from feeling totally let in

By: Roxana Hadadi

I wish I knew more about the Spanish Civil War than just what Ernest Hemingway and Guillermo del Toro have told me, but the novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and the films “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” are really all the knowledge I can offer. New historical epic “There Be Dragons,” written and directed by Brit Roland Joffé, fills in some of my educational gaps, but unlike del Toro’s engrossing horrors or Hemingway’s emotionally involved novels, “There Be Dragons” never fully draws audiences in.

The film keeps us away, at the edge of the battlefield, instead of forcing viewers into understanding and feeling the terrors and trauma experienced by so many during the three-year conflict that left 500,000 dead. There are explosions and executions and all kinds of horrible things, but the film’s scenes seem limited, as if what’s happening is just for our benefit. Unlike del Toro’s works, which draw in nature, the supernatural and fantasy to create an overwhelmingly eerie landscape, Joffé plays most of “There Be Dragons” along a straight and realistic line. When it comes to religious elements, dreams and flashbacks, the film struggles – it can’t make these elements seem as fantastical as they need to be.

But what Joffé gets right is the realness of internal struggle. The characters in “There Be Dragons” drown in their own pain, fighting to deal with the blame and guilt placed on them by the war and its impact. Whether their loyalties lie with the military or with God, the film’s main characters – Manolo Torres (Wes Bentley) and Josemaría Escrivá (Charlie Cox) – spend years trying to decide if what they did during the war was for the best. Did they abandon their beliefs, or did they grow stronger with time? Were their motives justified or selfish?

Joffé leaves it up to the audience to judge his characters; in one interview, Bentley described the film as similar to “American Beauty” (in which he had his breakout role, before spiraling into an addiction to heroin he’s recently conquered), and in some ways that comparison makes sense. In each film, a man attempts to find the meaning in his life, wondering how his relationships with others – his lovers, his children, his rivals – have shaped both his and their lives. “American Beauty,” however, was defined by the banality of suburbia, of the frustration and stagnation that comes with that experience; “There Be Dragons” questions more what depths a man will sink to when trying to find his own identity. And yeah, there are no burger-flipping jobs or weed-smoking neighbors in Civil War-era Spain.

Oh, and no dragons. Sorry, everyone who was expecting “Reign of Fire.” That’s not happening.

The film – which “is inspired by true events,” according to its introduction – focuses on Manolo and Josemaría (an actual Roman Catholic priest who was canonized in 2002 by Pope John Paul II), childhood friends who grew apart mainly because of Manolo’s strict father, who refused to associate with Josemaría’s family once they went bankrupt. “My dad thought poverty was contagious,” Manolo remembers, and his father’s beatings coupled with a change in Josemaría, who began to feel the religious call, effectively ended their friendship. Seven years later, they would meet again at a seminary, but the path of faith wasn’t for Manolo. After a year, he left – and after his father’s death, he would abandon religious belief altogether.

Josemaría, however, wouldn’t be so easily swayed: He would go on to become a priest, and a vision of Jesus Christ working as a carpenter would inspire him to believe that ordinary Catholics could sanctify themselves just through everyday living. The idea would lead him to create Opus Dei, an organization of priests and followers who would do the “Work of God” – and even when left-wing rebels began raging against the Church and executing priests, Josemaría refused to let go of his mission.

The film follows both men during the war, as Manolo transitions from pretty rich boy to undercover right-wing spy and Josemaría fights to keep serving the religious in Madrid as the war worsens. But while Manolo can’t decide who he is, especially when he becomes obsessed with Polish radical Ildiko (Olga Kurylenko), Josemaría knows his path, but has to fight to keep it on the right course.

Expect viewers to care equally about both men is ultimately an unfair task. The film uses Josemaría’s death and Manolo’s guilt as a framing device, with Manolo’s son Robert (Dougray Scott) writing a book about Josemaría and uncovering his past with his father, but the jumping back and forth between the present and the past is often clunky and seems unnecessary. It’s obvious that Manolo wants to explain his past to his son so the two can mend their relationship, but their fractured bond only gets truly interesting during the last half-hour of the film; the previous 90 minutes are tough to get through for such a brief payoff.

Cox and Bentley, however, try their best: The former is fantastic, the latter only great when the script allows it. His character, for being the main focus, is sketchy most of the time: He at first sympathizes with the rebels and then viciously hates them after his father dies – a strange switch for a child who was beaten constantly and resented his father’s detachment. His rage and frustration as the war develops are believable, though, and his interactions with Ildiko and her lover, rebel leader Oriol (Rodrigo Santoro), hint at a man who knows he can never measure up. Cox displays similar emotional depth, from terrible scenes where he practices self-flagellation to his measured, slightly sad response when a woman kisses him on the cheek after a confession. The Catholic Church should have nothing to complain about.

The film is rated PG-13, and could certainly be seen by religious or secular families alike; those familiar with Josemaría’s story should be pleased by his depiction here. Because the film is set during a war, there’s lots of violence, with some of it gory: There’s executions of a priest and a rebel; tons of explosions; wounded victims of air strikes and raids; one suicide; and someone who gets shot in the head. There’s also cursing and implied sex scenes, but no nudity.

But the bloodiness isn’t the problem with “There Be Dragons”: It’s the plodding pace and the uneven character development that taint the film, keeping it from feeling truly epic. I may have learned more about the conflicts defining the Spanish Civil War thanks to “There Be Dragons,” but the film can’t absorb us into its tale of woe and redemption. You can see it, but you won’t feel it.


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