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Movie Review

There Be Dragons

Catholic tale lacking in faith

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By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / May 6, 2011

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Roland Joffe is sort of a chop-shop David Lean. Seriousness, scale, sweep, that’s what he has to offer — only less so. Joffe made his reputation in the ’80s directing “The Killing Fields,’’ about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and “The Mission,’’ about Jesuits in colonial South America. Then in the ’90s he directed “City of Joy,’’ unleashing Patrick Swayze on Calcutta, and “The Scarlet Letter,’’ inflicting Demi Moore on Nathaniel Hawthorne. There hasn’t been much to speak of since.

Now comes “There Be Dragons.’’ “Inspired by true events’’ the opening credits say. “Time to count the factual silverware,’’ the moviegoer mutters. “Dragons’’ is a quite strange movie that braids together a biopic of St. Josemaria Escriva with a hopelessly contrived melodrama about a fictional boyhood friend of Escriva’s, the Spanish Civil War, and lots of swooping camerawork.

It also has an agenda. Escriva (1902-1975) founded the Catholic religious group Opus Dei. To conservative Catholics, Opus Dei (Latin for Work of God) is an estimable organization that brings together clergy and laypeople to strengthen faith in Christ. Among those conservative Catholics was John Paul II, who canonized Escriva. To others, Opus Dei is faintly sinister: a force for reaction in the Catholic Church and, if Dan Brown is to be believed in “The Da Vinci Code’’ (talk about counting the factual silverware!), that’s the least of its sins.

“There Be Dragons’’ wants to celebrate Escriva’s piety, but do it with the sort of soulful looks and shameful coincidences and (it must be said) excellent production values that aim to make piety seem gripping as well as holy. That’s the agenda.

As Escriva, the English actor Charlie Cox acquits himself surprisingly well. You think it’s hard being a saint? Try playing one. It helps that Cox’s owlish-round glasses make him look a bit like a surplice-wearing Harry Potter.

Wes Bentley, as Escriva’s friend, Manolo, smolders a lot. If “Dragons’’ had been made 20 years ago, Antonio Banderas would have played the part — and presumably better. Several unexpected people show up: as a monsignor, Charles Dance; as a candy maker who befriends the young Escriva, Derek Jacobi (if he’s Spanish, then the Armada must have won); as Escriva’s nanny, Geraldine Chaplin, her eyes still astonishingly button-bright.

St. Paul tells us that, of faith, hope, and love, the greatest is love. With biopics, it’s faith. If the filmmakers don’t have dramatic faith in their subject, why bother? The degree of storytelling flummery here — Manolo’s reporter son (Dougray Scott) starts telling the story in voice-over, until Manolo starts telling it in a flashback voice-over of his own — doesn’t exactly suggest much dramatic faith in the material. In fairness, putting holiness onscreen is an enormous challenge. It can be done, as several directors have shown, most notably Dreyer and Bresson. Bad enough that Joffe is the poor man’s Lean. He’s also the nonbelieving man’s Dreyer and Bresson.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

THERE BE DRAGONS Written and directed by: Roland Joffe

Starring: Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Dougray Scott

At: Boston Common, suburbs

Running time: 120 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (for violence and combat sequences, some language and thematic elements)

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