REVIEW: There Be Dragons Has Fascists, Sinners and a Hot Hungarian, But No Dragons

Movieline Score:

There Be Dragons screened early in the morning following the president's midnight announcement that Osama bin Laden had been, to use a phrase adopted by the movies as its own, taken out. A revenge hangover clouded the room. "It's New York," one man said. "I want to see the body." "I'm not saying he's not a monster," a woman replied. "I just don't want all this hoo-ha." Jokes about the hastily written Hollywood version of the raid that killed the world's most famous terrorist were thin. "Too bad he wasn't a woman," someone -- a man -- ventured. "We'd see it on Lifetime next week."

Maybe a screening of Cowboys and Aliens would have been inflected by Bin Laden's death, but Roland Joffé's Spanish civil war opus seemed to lend itself, at least initially, to the mood of the day. The setup is swift: A writer (Dougray Scott) returns to Spain to research the life of Josemaria Escrivá (Charlie Cox) and continue avoiding his ailing father Manolo (Wes Bentley in old man drag). When he uncovers a connection between the two men and asks his dad for the dirt, a long, downward spiral of flashbacks begins, quickly crowding Scott out of the story so that his later recurrences -- one quite pivotal -- add to the movie's erratic rhythms instead of smoothing them out. Manolo and Josemaría meet as children, and are disciplined by a priest as young men: "The only thing God will not forgive," they are told, "is the withholding of forgiveness."

Manolo's not big on either side of the penance equation, so he leaves the seminary while Josemaría continues on. The latter has a taste for the divine, as an earlier piece of business in a chocolate factory has made perfectly clear, and is soon rallying men to form a new Catholic prelature called Opus Dei, presented as a humble outfit more interested in apostolic work and gender equality than bureaucracy and dogma. (This is the part where I mention, significantly, that two of this film's producers are Opus Dei members.) Manolo's father, a factory owner and amoral capitalist, teaches his son that his only duty is to "choose the winning side." Josemaría wants to create new terms for winning. As the film jumps forward from 1918 and then again into the 1930s, the history behind these characters and their country passes by with the smooth, untroubled skimming of DP Gabriel Beristain's dolly work. Fascists, communists, anarchists -- all part of war's rich tapestry, but let's not get bogged down by the details, or even have a clear understanding of the ideological struggle for a "more civilized Spain."

Joffé claims elevated aesthetic ground, where the customs include old men recording whispery eight-track memoirs for their estranged sons and cinematography so closely choreographed with the mise en scene that I found myself more moved by the camera's relationship with a desktop than by anything taking place between the players. Manolo, a moribund vessel for the seven deadlies, is sucked into what he describes as the "ecstasy" of war, and of belonging, especially to a resistance that includes a smoking Hungarian like Ildiko (Olga Kurylenko, captivating), a pseudo-Magdalene whose service involves giving the men "comfort." She's most interested in comforting the group's leader, Oriol (Rodrigo Santoro), alas, which gives Bentley a chance to flare those magnificent eyebrows at length, scheming all the while.

Because his character is never clear, Manolo's choices lack emotional interest and narrative urgency. His moral inverse, Josemaría, is similarly dull to watch. (The stories are paralleled, intersecting only once after the men are grown.) His pop-up lectures and relentless, unconflicted goodness help distend this terminally self-conscious historical drama without adding much of thematic value. During the Battle for Madrid, Josemaría's men call the enemy "swine" and the priest lashes out. "They are men, just like us," he says. "What would you do to them, and wouldn't you take pleasure in it?" Neither the characters nor the world they live in embody the complexity of that statement, which managed to resonate throughout the screening room without having touched the screen itself.