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Movie Review

We're told in There Be Dragons that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. And as writer Robert Torres explains how he researched St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer's life, only to discover his own father's tangled background, that thought becomes increasingly meaningful—to him and to us.

Commissioned to write a biography about the saint (who in real life was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002), Robert calls his elderly father, Manolo, though the two have been estranged for years. Because Manolo was a childhood friend of Josemaría's, he records tapes for Robert that detail his experiences with the priest (seen onscreen as a series of flashbacks). In the process, Manolo explains much of his own story to his son.

Once close but separated by social status and prejudice while they were still boys, Josemaría and Manolo met again at seminary, where both men studied to become priests. Hardhearted Manolo soon dropped out and became a spy in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, tracking right-wing rebels who tried to overthrow the government.

Dragons enter both men's lives in those difficult years. How each dealt with them made all the difference:

Josemaría fights his, continually turning to God for guidance despite feeling unworthy, rejected and understandably furious as priests and nuns—who are considered social parasites during the war—are slaughtered. Even under great stress he deals with others from a place of love, forgiveness and charity. He encourages his flock to pray for their enemies. Love can, he says, pierce all hearts and bring peace.

Manolo, meanwhile, feeds his dragons of lust, lies, hatred and isolation, living a life of moral and spiritual darkness. And he reaps the whirlwind for his actions. But even great sinners have hope. And so do their sons. When elderly Manolo asks Robert for prayer and forgiveness, it's clear that the old man has finally begun to manifest the goodness Josemaría always saw in him.

[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]

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Positive Elements

Josemaría's stalwart dedication to loving God and people—including his enemies—is amazing and inspiring. Fixated on the good he knows people are capable of and not the wickedness they commit, he time after time reaches out in kindness and humility. His followers accordingly offer their fellowship and service wholeheartedly, even when he challenges them to first change themselves into sowers of peace and joy before rushing out to "change the world." While in need himself, Josemaría comforts and provides for others. And he steadfastly loves Manolo unconditionally, telling the man that he's always there for him, even when Manolo wants nothing to do with him.

Manolo, despite his checkered past and bitterness, comes to understand the importance of the forgiveness Josemaría models. He finally comes to grips with his need to reconcile with Robert. And at the same time, Lela, Robert's lover, encourages Robert to forgive his father and to view the biography as an opportunity for healing and connection with him. A monsignor, too, tells Robert that Manolo is a product of difficult times, and that he should try to get to know his father.

Years earlier, I should note, we also see Manolo reach beyond himself when he rescues an orphan boy and raises him as his own. He also saves Josemaría's life.

Even after losing several young children, Manolo's mother says she still loves God, whom she believes is very good and loving regardless of severe circumstances. Several characters, in fact, cling to their faith and love for God in the face of brutal suffering.

Later, another monsignor sees the good in two hotheaded, rash seminarians, telling them both that they can make fine priests anyway because God works in hearts. A nanny encourages young boys to face metaphorical dragons in their lives gracefully and with courage.

Spiritual Content

While still a child, Josemaría felt a calling on his life. One night he sees a Franciscan father delivering firewood to the poor, and he feels God is asking him to enter the priesthood. It's not an easy journey, however, and Josemaría frequently questions God's leading—until he sees a vision of a utopian society in which people work together regardless of gender, marital status or ecclesiastical rank, all for the glory of God. It was this vision that led him to found Opus Dei.

Note that the film focuses on the religious organization's positive foundational principles, not its present-day controversies.

Josemaría is said to have performed a miracle—removing an orange-sized tumor from a nun's neck, an event that gets little attention and is given no detail onscreen. Manolo sees and speaks to a vision of Josemaría on his deathbed, the younger man's face glowing from an ethereal light. Josemaría sees a vision of Jesus working in a carpenter's shop.

When a dying Jewish man questions his ability to enter heaven, Josemaría simply tells him that God loves him very much. The two then recite a Bible verse in English and Hebrew. A rape victim tells Josemaría that she stopped going to Mass after the attack because she couldn't understand why God would allow so much pain. Then she says she accepted the fact that God can be "terrible" and a "monster," and she found that her spiritual life revived—and with greater depth. She prophesies over Josemaría.

Mass is held in church and confession is made clandestinely at a zoo. Josemaría prays repeatedly, with passion, as if God were standing right next to him. When his life is threatened, he faces death with assurance, telling his tormentor that all it means is that he might meet his maker sooner than he'd anticipated. A man tells his lover that if anything happens to him in the war, he'll be waiting for her "on the other side." When he dies, she obsesses over dying too so that she can meet him there. "God's will" is evoked as a comfort in times of devastation. People pray for a dead priest.

Manolo says that Spanish citizens "had to swear on the Bible or spit on it" during the country's civil war. Some men are said to become priests only for a career opportunity, others are truly called. Catholic icons and religious tools are ever present.

Sexual Content

A rebel leader and a female fighter embrace and kiss. It's implied that they have sex, and she carries his child. (When the baby is born, the camera shows her bare legs as she labors.) She is also said to have provided sexual "comfort" to multiple soldiers, but when Manolo seeks her "company," she declines. Robert and Lela are shown in bed together, woken up by a late-night phone call.

When a parishioner offers her room to the homeless Josemaría, he declines, saying he is a priest, but also a man. Policemen who question the two assume they are having an affair. Josemaría's father asks his seminarian son whether he's prepared to give up sex for a lifetime. Manolo says that most young men were celibate at the time whether they wanted to be or not, but in seminary and the priesthood, at least they were paid for it.

Violent Content

Manolo points a handgun at a bound and gagged man who is said to have killed his father. He's reluctant to pull the trigger, so a comrade reaches over and "helps" him, shooting the terrified man point-blank in the head. (Shadows obscure the fatal wound.) A man shoots himself offscreen. (His head is seen in a pool of blood.) In battle, Manolo shoots a woman. (We see her corpse.)

Josemaría subtly practices self-flagellation. He's in shadows, and the camera repeatedly cuts back to a painting of Christ being beaten. A rape victim shows Josemaría scars on her wrists, the apparent result of a suicide attempt. A man is threatened with a knife to his throat. Corpses hang from a bridge. The corpse of a young girl is seen. Young men get into a fistfight, wrestling on the ground and bloodying each other's faces. A woman is kicked while she lies on the ground, and her mouth is bloodied. A soldier slaps a woman's face.

More generally, the civil war setting provides sporadic gunfire as men are fired upon by aircraft or ground troops. Bodies are strewn across the battlefields and sandbag bunkers, and from a distance we see bullets blast into heads and chests, sometimes splattering blood. Dying soldiers fall from buildings. A priest is executed with a shot to the back of the head. Bombs pummel cities, destroying buildings and sending people flying.

Shots are fired into a house where Josemaría and his followers hide. Men repeatedly riot in the streets, breaking windows, shoving and punching one another. Churches and other buildings are set on fire and broken into. A child is punished with a switch. A grieving boy throws a plate across a room, shattering it. A dead deer is strung up for meat.

Crude or Profane Language

One s-word. God's name is misused four or five times. Other language includes "d‑‑n" (10 or so times), "a‑‑," "b‑‑tard," "h‑‑‑" and "pr‑‑k." Male genitalia is mentioned crudely.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Alcohol is seen on tables during a gathering. Several characters smoke cigarettes. As an old man, Manolo's medicine cabinet is full of prescriptions.

Other Negative Elements

Corpses of innocents are spat upon. We see a pregnant woman vomiting. After giving birth, she abandons her baby. A man cleaning bedpans breaks down over the smell.

As a child, Manolo says he stole chocolates from Josemaría's father's factory. Characters lie and occasionally taunt each other. Robert says he hates his father.

Conclusion

Josemaría learns early on that not all people want to experience God. One of his father's employees illustrates this to him using a lowly cacao bean. The man says that with skill, hard work and love, one can release the divine flavors inside, though not everyone has a taste for godliness. Josemaría craves it. And he longs for others to crave it too. In fact, when Manolo tells him he's not "priest material," Josemaría tells him that doesn't mean he's not "saint material."

It's Josemaría's insight that allows him, despite his church authorities' skepticism, to see that we glorify God through even the seemingly mundane. Every act, he says, when done in love, worships Him. And when his own spiritual life feels dark, he clings to God's goodness, returning again and again in prayer, though the heavens seem like brass.

Interwoven with these utterly practical spiritual messages is a mystical religious euphoria of sorts. Prophecies. Revelatory visions. A healing. Catholic canonization. And more distracting than those more exotic spiritual touchpoints are graphic battle images, intimations of sexual promiscuity, brutal executions and what amounts to a mercy killing. An overly complicated plot is an obstacle here, too, as moviegoers—Americans in particular—will quickly find themselves lost in the fog of an unfamiliar war.

That doesn't mean the lessons on forgiveness, unconditional love and dedication to God disappear, of course. And, indeed, everything comes sharply into focus when Manolo asks Robert's forgiveness for decades of lies and poor parenting. That's because the old man is asking for pardon not for his own sake, but for Robert's. He finally understands the destruction that bitterness wrought in his own life. And Robert, in turn, begins to practice the process of forgiveness with his children's benefit in mind.

Through Josemaría's legacy, Manolo has learned that, though nothing can change the past, forgiveness can soften the suffering … and slay the dragon.

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Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

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