There Be Dragons is not the return of Roland Joffé. The name probably doesn’t mean anything to you. But this director made two brilliant movies in the 1980s, namely The Killing Fields and The Mission. These were intelligent, sensitive movies, which dealt with political, religious and humanitarian questions, told with the lightness and precision of a skilled craftsman. Then he disappeared. Last year he resurfaced with this historical drama about the Spanish Civil War, an ambitious theme that augured the return to greatness. Alas, that did not come to pass.
The movie follows the early years of Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of the Opus Dei. Now although I’m biased against true stories, this could actually be a great premise. Escrivá was the son of a businessman who went bankrupt. In his childhood he felt the call of the divine and later enrolled in the seminary; after being ordained he started looking for a way of doing God’s work (literally Opus Dei) closer to the people. But he was also living in a country at a time when anti-Catholic sentiments were high because the people had elected a communist government that believed the church was blocking the modernisation of the country. In the movie, Escrivá tries to hold religious services in clandestine ways, always on the move, at the same time he survives thanks to the efforts of his followers, who protect, feed and shelter him. As the conflicts between the communists and Franco’s troops escalate, he flees to neutral Andorra. This is actually a pretty interesting story, although told with little passion, originality or artistic merit.
But the real problem is when the movie ventures into fiction. Now I said above that I don’t like true stories. Like a good literature student, I can’t help compare both media and realise that whereas great literature is made of fiction (Madame Bovary, The Master and Margarita, The Trial, etc.), great cinema comes from true stories (Lawrence of Arabia, Schindler’s List, Glory, Gandhi, etc.) For some time now I’ve held this suspicion that most biopics receive great reviews and win Oscars just because they’re true stories: The King’s Speech, The Fighter, A Beautiful Mind, The Social Network, Milk, Ray, The Blind Side. It’s like critics and audiences can’t distinguish the emotional power of the facts from the way they are told (which is what only matters in art). As someone who values the power of fiction over facts to illuminate the truths about the world we live in, I’m always suspicious of filmmakers who hit me in the head with solemn, important themes, but offer nothing else. In the end, a theme is only as good as its artistic execution. A truly good artist can fill the most mundane of themes with life-and-death urgency.
In spite of the lack of artistry in There Be Dragons, however, I wish the movie had stuck to the facts, if there was no one to provide a good fictional yarn. The second story concerns a journalist investigating the life of Escrivá to write a book; his father, oh irony of ironies, was a childhood friend of him, and he has secrets to tell. Now this story is full of clichés, including a melodramatic discovery of the journalist’s origins through a sealed envelope kept safe in his father’s drawer and a hackneyed reconciliation between an estranged father and a son on a deathbed. The clichés pile upon each other at a dizzying speed, building a wall of indifference between the viewer and the movie. From this I conclude two things: one, the people who write original fiction for movies, a dying breed in the age of sequels, remakes and biopics, aren’t worth the talent of a second-rate novelist; and two, Roland Joffé should never, under any circumstances, be allowed to write a screenplay again. I mean, maybe this is just the old college bias, and far from wanting to contest a theory invented by a bunch of French filmmakers some fifty years ago about directors being auteurs and all, but maybe Joffé should delegate the writing chores to people who actually have practice in writing, like he did in The Killing Fields and The Mission, the two only movies he actually got great reviews for in his entire career. Just a suggestion.
Perhaps the best way of looking at what has changed in Joffé is by considering who he no longer works with. One, he’s not working with director of photography Chris Menges anymore; two, he’s not working with film editor Jim Clark anymore. Three, he’s not working with composer Ennio Morricone anymore; four, he’s not working with producers David Puttnam and Iain Smith anymore.
Perhaps another way of looking at things is considering who he is working with these days. Amongst the producers we find two members of the Opus Dei. Now I’m no expert on cinema: like I mentioned before I actually studied literature; I’m sure the auteur theory that has reigned supreme in cinema for half a century and which establishes the director as the creative force behind a movie is very sound, but I just think when you stop working with producers involved in movies like Midnight Express, Chariots of Fire or Children of Men, and start working with priests, that may account for your dip in quality. Not to say of course that unconventional producers make bad movies. After all, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers was financed by one of the leaders of the Algerian National Liberation Front, and it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. Maybe terrorists just make better film producers than members of secretive religious organisations.
Not everything is bad in the movie. But what is good isn’t remarkably good. Maybe a few decades ago the costumes, the sets, the rawness of the battle scenes would have impressed. But let’s be honest, unless we’re talking about a really independent movie made during weekends on a shoestring, praising a movie for technical prowess is redundant. Even the most inept movies these days, like Pearl Harbor, manage to have great production values. If some guy had made something as amazing as Lawrence of Arabia on one million dollars, that’d be praiseworthy. But an adequate result for $30 million? Isn’t technical competence the bare minimum a viewer should demand from a person who’s been making movies for thirty years?
And the acting is also just adequate. Again, in his early days, Joffé took chances. In The Killing Fields he cast a non-professional Cambodian actor in an important role with many lines spoken in Cambodian. In The Mission he cast members of the Amazonian tribes to give authenticity to the story. These were bold moves. In 2011, he casts Anglo-American actors to play Spaniards with phoney accents. More and more this is becoming jarring to viewers who have watched Letters from Iwo Jima, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Inglourious Basterds and The Passion of the Christ, all of which were great successes. It’s time filmmakers start realising it’s a whole new world out there where people don’t mind reading subtitles, where they scoff at silly accents, and where authenticity matters.
Why watch a movie like this? I don’t know. Why make it? Like I said before, the story of Escrivá is interesting; I can understand the dramatic appeal it’d have for a filmmaker. And Joffé even tackled religious matters with sensibility in The Mission. But I can’t help thinking that the real interesting story of Escrivá starts after he reached Andorra. The movie shows him just as another person amongst many trying to survive a civil war. Why make a movie about him if his experience was the same as his neighbour’s? In The Mission Joffé told an interesting story about the Jesuits in South America. It was a movie full of human interest, beauty, intelligence, and passion, all of which are lacking in this disappointing mess.
There Be Dragons is out onblu-ray in the UK 20th February 2012.
Director: Roland Joffé
Screenwriter: Roland Joffé
Cast: Dougray Scott, Wes Bentley, Charlie Cox, Olga Kurylenko, Rodrigo Santoro
Runtime: 122 min
Country: USA, Argentina, Spain