Roland Joffé has made a specialty of venturing into war zones, relishing converging history, culture, and conflicts. At his best, he finds ways to explore vast landscapes and struggles, while personalizing the sagas with intimate character studies. There Be Dragons, taking place mostly during the turbulent Spanish Civil War, never reaches the careful artistic equilibrium that made The Killing Fields and The Mission resonate as empathetic epics, but the film exerts a sure allure as both a study of a place and time and a character study of Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei.
In some way, the Spanish Civil War — a tragic European conflict simplified as a battle between fascists and communists — has gotten less attention than it might in the cinema, perhaps because of the grander historical shadow cast by WWII. (The Nazi war machinery was partially road-tested in Spain.)
History is laid out, mosaic-like, in Joffé’s script, which is structured around a modern-day journalist, coaxing the story out of his dying father. From life in Madrid in the early 20th century through the horrors and battlefields of the war, cross-cut with scenes of the journalist’s narrative voice, the film deals us a broad range of circumstances. The background of the war and its chaos sets the stage for a set of characters’ conflicts, love liaisons, and religious quests — the latter amidst regular attacks on priests. A man, at one point, rescues our priest protagonist from would-be thugs, and tells him “you’ve got balls, for a bourgeois ass.” The chilling realities of the day and society help lead the future saint Escrivá towards his new Catholic order, more attuned to life in the streets; “everyone and everything for your glory,” he prays to his God. But the stronger plotline involves ripples in the current moment.
Unfortunately, the film comports itself with a kind of a glossy and glib atmosphere and a sentimental mode of storytelling, which ultimately gets in the way of our getting engaged in the characters. Veracity suffers, even as our historical curiosity — and ability to detect comparisons between the Spanish Civil War and other wars we’ve know and hated — is piqued.