NEW YORK (CNS) — What many people think they know about the Catholic spiritual movement Opus Dei likely comes – unfortunately – from the slanderous misrepresentations of it fobbed off on the public by author Dan Brown in his 2003 novel “The Da Vinci Code.” Brown’s fallacies, moreover, were only perpetuated by the 2006 screen version of his feverish fantasy, helmed by Ron Howard.
A healthy antidote to such sensationalized misconceptions – a murderous albino monk, you say? — comes with the release of “There Be Dragons” (Samuel Goldwyn), a generally powerful, partly fictionalized dramatization of passages in the life of Opus Dei’s founder, St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer (1902-75), intensely yet appealingly portrayed by Charlie Cox.
As fictional Spanish-born reporter Robert Torres (Dougray Scott) investigates Escriva’s life, he’s surprised to discover that his own father Manolo (Wes Bentley) – from whom Robert has long been estranged — was the future religious leader’s childhood friend and seminary classmate.
With the tumult of the Spanish Civil War looming, however, the two men took diametrically different paths.
Once ordained, Escriva labored for the establishment of a community dedicated to achieving personal sanctity through everyday work, an organization whose structure — unprecedented in the modern church – would embrace women as well as men, laypeople as well as priests.
Having rejected the faith in favor of a bitterly cynical materialism, meanwhile, Manolo is shown pursuing a duplicitous role in the conflict engulfing his society.
Not the least of the obstacles Escriva confronted in furthering his “Work of God” (the English meaning of the Latin phrase “Opus Dei”) was the increasingly violent anti-clericalism of the Loyalist side in the Spanish struggle.
Yet when these leftists begin desecrating churches and murdering priests in cold blood, Escriva remains evenhandedly neutral, sympathizing with his adversaries’ motivations and aspirations and urging his handful of early followers to react with Christian forbearance.
This nuanced and charitable approach to the situation belies Escriva’s reputation, in some circles, as an unabashed devotee of Franco’s fascist vision.
The striking portrait of an anything-but-plaster saint that forms the heart of writer-director Roland Joffe’s hybrid tale grippingly conveys its subject’s struggle to discern his vocation and to live out the Christian message of peace, even in the most trying circumstances.
But the impact of these fact-based biographical elements is blunted by the fictive framework with which Joffe has chosen to surround them, a storytelling device that turns out to be more burden than enhancement. Thus, imaginary subplots such as the conflict between Robert and Manolo never seem quite convincing, and only serve to distract from a primary story which is both spiritually valuable and ably depicted.
The significance of that central chronicle is such, however, as to make “There Be Dragons” probably acceptable for older teens.
The film contains occasionally bloody action violence, a few sexual references, a couple of crude and a half-dozen crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III – adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.