John Allen on “There Be Dragons”

Over at the National Catholic Reporter blog, John Allen has an intriguing discussion of There Be Dragons, Roland Joffé’s upcoming film about the life of St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei.

From a journalistic point of view, it’s tempting to style “There Be Dragons” as a sort of anti-Da Vinci Code – a pop culture portrayal of Opus Dei, in the person of the group’s founder, which makes the group seem as heroic and sympathetic as Dan Brown’s potboiler, and the subsequent film, made it appear weird and menacing.

Allen goes on to speculate on whether or not the film will be controversial. Given the strong financial and advisory support it received from some key members of Opus Dei, he suggests that some quarters will be inclined to see it as “Opus Dei agit-prop, a well-heeled effort to whitewash the controversy around Escrivá.” Of course, some quarters would be unreceptive no matter what role Opus Dei played in the film, methinks. But it will be interesting to see how the historical factors play out. (Allen is inclined to think that it will be another yet example of the “love it/hate it” film, with avid supporters and just-as-avid detractors).

Allen also noted a particularly fascinating phenomenon:

As a footnote, here’s something worth thinking about. Joffé has now made films lionizing members of two groups historically regarded as sort of the matter and anti-matter of the Catholic universe: The Jesuits and Opus Dei. It’s ironic – and, perhaps, not a little bit revealing – that it has taken a “wobbly agnostic,” rather than a Catholic, to make movies with something positive to say about both.

Ah, the oft-asked (and endlessly-interesting) “Why don’t Catholics make good Catholic movies?” dilemma rears its head yet again. But I find myself even more fascinated by the question of whether we should be willing to accept Joffé’s self-proclaimed label any longer. Perhaps he’s nowhere near as wobbly or as agnostic as he would like us to think.

Joseph Susanka


Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. Currently residing in Lander, Wyoming -- "where Stetsons meet Birkenstocks" -- he is a columnist for Crisis Magazine and the Patheos Catholic portal.

  • Jim

    Another great Catholic made by a self-professed agnostic, who we may pray is less agnostic now.

  • digdigby

    The multiple award winning masterpiece, ‘The Tree of Wooden Clogs” was directed by Ermanno Olmi, a ‘fervent catholic’. Must see!
    Rossellini’s Flowers of St. Francis is another agnostic’s film that backs up your thesis. Cardinal Roncalli (Later John Paul XXIII) Watched a screening of this film, deeply touched and kept patting Rossellini on the arm and murmuring “You poor man! You poor man!” – To have such talent and insight into spiritual beauty and not be a believer! The future pope pitied him.

  • Lee Gilbert

    Leonardo Defillipis and Mel Gibson, both Catholics, made two great films: “Therese” and “The Passion of the Christ.”

    I’ll admit to being saddened by many comments made at the time to the effect that “Therese” was overly sentimental and saccharine. To me this seems grossly unfair for two reasons. First of all, this isn’t a bio of Al Capone, after all. No car chases, no shoot’em ups, no bar room brawls or fistfights. No explosions. Nor were there any of the typical teenage tantrum scenes. No real quarrels. No shouting. No “partial nudity” or “sexual situations” so common on the screen today.

    Everything was very sedate, for this was after all the home of Mr. and Mrs. Martin, one of those saintly couples for whom we wish canonization, do we not? They knew how to keep a prayerful, peaceful, joyful home. And they knew how to form saintly, loving daughters. So if we wish to quarrel with anyone, it should be with them, and not with the screen writer. After all, Mrs. Defillipis could only work with what the Martin family actually presented her- a peaceful, loving, thoroughly Catholic family. This is bad?

    As for sentimentality, we are not the bourgoisie of 19th century France and probably have no concept how sentimental they actually were- even having seen the movie, we who think that we are being extremely florid when we write, “Dear Bill”, cross it out and write, “Hi Bill,” and finally cross *that* out and write, “Bill…”The entire age was sentimental, and probably nowhere moreso than in France.

    For instance, recently I purchased at a used book sale a book commemorating the 25th anniversary of the episcopacy of Archbishop Feehan of Chicago in 1890. Let me give you one sentence out of thousands in this book to give some glimpse of the tenor of the age. This is Bishop Hogan of Kansas City addressing the congregation at Holy Name Cathedral. Referring to Archbishop Feehan he said, ” Years ago, far away and beyond the misty ocean, in a country sanctified for ages by the faith of an apostle {He means St. Patrick, of course}, there knelt before the sacred altar, on the day of his first communion, a youth whose soul, filled with the deep emotion inspired by that hour, breathed in solemn prayer the words of Holy Writ, “What shall I render unto the Lord for all that he has rendered unto me….” A bishop saying anything of the kind in our age would cause unbounded hilarity in the newsrooms, rectories and barooms of the city, to say nothing of the cathedral itself.

    So much the worse for us! Nevertheless, I knew the film was in trouble when Mr. Martin called Therese, “My queen.” “This isn’t going to fly, ” I thought to myself. Nevertheless, that is what he did call her, whether we have trouble stomaching it or not. And it may very well have been part of the brew that so wonderfully nourished the heart of Therese Martin and made her a saint.

    At least let us do the Defillipises the courtesy of not insisting that their film be anachronistic and frame the whole story in terms of our emotional and spiritual impoverishment. Viewing that film is probably as close as we can get to being in the bosom of that family in those years, the English language excepted of course, just as viewing “The Passion of Christ” put us on the scene in Jerusalem.These are both exceptionally well done, and I for one went to see “Therese” and “The Passion” again and again until they went away.

    We cannot change the culture without changing the art, and we cannot get good films on Catholic themes by adopting an attitude of hypercriticism toward the few films that come our way. If we support Leonardo Defillipis today, he will be in a position to produce a better effort tomorrow. If it isn’t up to your mark, at least concede it is a first film, and possibly the first of a large, influential and impressive body of work…if we support these fledgling efforts today.Rivers of vocations can come from such work, the conversions of many families, the reform of their homes and etc. The lives of the saints are powerful enough to do all this and more. “A Man For all Seasons”; “The Mission”; “The Passion of the Christ”; “Therese”- Four Catholic movies in forty years! If we want more, then we have got to support films like “Therese” and “There Be Dragons,”to the max..however embarrassed our Catholics critics may be, and my guess is that they will be. Like Notre Dame trying to get the approval of the Ivy League, our Catholic bloggers and critics tend to be easily embarrassed. The first criterion of their judgment is, “What will ‘the world’ think of this film?” Am I wrong? I hope so.