Biopics, by their nature, can’t help but be at least a little epic. Typically, the subject of the film was chosen because he or she led an extraordinary life and did amazing things worthy of a cinematic presentation. There Be Dragons definitely gives its characters the epic treatment, presenting their lives from (nearly) beginning to end, placing them in wars, romances and other poignant moments that chiseled out their characters. But even in an epic film there’s still a need for focus, lest the movie turn into a biography rather than a story. In this regard, There Be Dragons definitely could have pared down some content, but inspired shots and notable performances keep viewers engaged throughout this ponderous film.
Investigative journalist Robert Torres (Dougray Scott) visits his homeland Spain to research a book on Josemaría Escrivá (Charlie Cox) who was the priest that founded Opus Dei. While in town, Robert makes an effort to contact his estranged father, Manolo (Wes Bentley), who apparently grew up with Josemaría. Now aged and feeling death’s shroud descending upon him, Manolo decides to reveal his experiences with Josemaría to his son, recounting their carefree childhood days, time during the Spanish Civil War and other defining moments. Robert will come to know the physical and spiritual struggles of the man he’s writing his book about and also the man he calls father. Along the way, all three men will learn the true meaning of forgiveness, which sometimes includes forgiving oneself.
The story of There Be Dragons really should have been simpler than it’s presented. Josemaría’s life seems interesting enough to carry a film on its own without having to tell the story through an onscreen storyteller or having to tell the story of the storyteller…or the story of the storyteller’s son. It might make more sense to develop a plot for each man if their stories were better intertwined, but as it is, the lives of Robert, Manolo and Josemaría are only loosely tied together from a storytelling aspect.
Robert has such little time onscreen that he barely functions as more than a catalyst to get his father talking about the controversial priest. Therefore the film wisely focuses on the lives of Manolo and Josemaría, but their experiences post childhood are so disparate and separate from one another that their stories really become two different films. Manolo’s story embroils him in the thick of war, a love triangle and murder. Josemaría’s story presents him trying to spread the word of God, struggling with his faith and eluding capture by a regime that would put all priests to death. The two men’s stories are satisfying in their own right, but audiences may grow increasingly frustrated as they look for the two plots to become relevant to each other, but never do.
Considering the amount of time There Be Dragons covers, this movie is epic, which also extends to the production value of the film. It looks beautiful from start to finish and audiences will appreciate the attention to detail in whatever time period the film presents. Even larger set pieces, like the war scenes, come off completely believable and it’s surprising that the film managed such big, impressive visuals for what seems like an intimate story. There are also a few inspired shots that are impressive in their creativity – like the room frozen-in-time early on, with papers caught fluttering in mid-air or a surreal scene with contemporary hospital staff staring through the floor at a Jewish carpenter from the beginning of the common era – but it’s difficult to argue that they add to the film beyond their cleverness.
One oddity that There Be Dragons exhibits that audiences may or may not appreciate is its “made for American television” feel, which it never really shakes. The entire movie, excluding some moments of prayer, is spoken entirely in English despite being set wholly in Spain. While this allows audiences to focus on the film instead of reading, it also reduces the authenticity. Also, the script feels a bit overwritten; characters are constantly talking about their emotions rather than simply emoting. Nevertheless, this decision may make the film more accessible to younger audiences. With that in mind, the violence is kept to a minimum and mostly off screen despite there being a number of war scenes. So parents should feel free to bring their children.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that There Be Dragons presents the Catholic Church and religion as a whole in a very favorable light. Catholics and other believers will enjoy the many faith-affirming scenes featuring Josemaría communing with God as the sun rises, bathing the ruins of a church in an orange glow, eradicating the shadows of doubt. Non-believers will roll their eyes.