St. Josemaría Escrivá, Civil War and Forgiveness

Interview With "There Be Dragons" Movie Director

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By Jesús Colina

ROME, JAN. 1, 2011 (Zenit.org).- This Spring, a movie will be released that will feature as one of the leading characters St. Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei, with themes of war, love and forgiveness.

ZENIT spoke with Roland Joffé, the director of the new movie, "There Be Dragons," who is also known for directing the films "The Mission" and "The Killing Fields."

The forthcoming movie is set during the Spanish Civil War and features themes such as saintliness and betrayal, love and hatred, forgiveness and violence, and finding meaning in everyday life.

ZENIT interviewed Joffé at the beginning of this year that marks 75 years since the outbreak of the war, about the story behind this film and the highlights an audience can expect.

ZENIT: What does the title -- "There Be Dragons" -- refer to?

Joffé: Medieval maps labeled unknown territory with the words "Hic sunt dragones" -- "here be dragons."

Because I didn't really know what was coming next when I started, researching and writing this screenplay, or how it would quite end, "There Be Dragons" seems like a very apt title -- I was going a little off my map into unchartered territory, into themes of what saintliness might be, themes of religion and twentieth century politics and into the past of another country.

I was struck by Josemaría's statement that God is found in "everyday life," and that everyday life, in his case, was the Spanish Civil War.

I wondered: How could one find the divine in war? But then the same question can be asked of all the fundamental challenges in life, and how we face them: How we respond to hatred and rejection, or the desire for revenge and justice -- all those dilemmas are heightened in wartime.

Those dilemmas are, in a sense, the "dragons" of the film -- turning points in our lives where we're faced with potent choices, choices that are going to affect our future.

"There Be Dragons" is about the very different choices that people take at those turning-points -- temptations, if you like -- and how hard it is, and yet how necessary, to escape cycles of hatred and resentment and violence.

ZENIT: The movie is set in the context of the Spanish Civil War, which is in a certain sense the paradigm for violence that leads to more violence, and violence that makes no sense. Faced with a scene such as this one -- a scene of fratricidal violence -- is there room for hope?

Joffé: Yes -- but it's extremely hard. So many horrible, horrendous acts between people seem unforgivable, unredeemable, impossible to move beyond.

But forgiveness is possible! Cycles of violence can be halted, as President Mandela demonstrated in South Africa. Forgiveness has been possible for many heroic people in Rwanda, and offered and taken by many brave Palestinians and Israelis.

Josemaría also claimed that ordinary people were quite capable of being saints -- and I think this kind of heroic forgiveness is what he was talking about.

The inexhaustible possibility of forgiveness is what offers room for hope. But the price is high: It takes a deep sense of what it is to be fully human, a deep feeling for compassion -- and a firm, individual, and yes, heroic resolve not to be caught up in prevailing hatreds, but to fight them with unremitting love.

Most of the action in the movie takes place during the Spanish Civil War, but it flips between that backdrop and 1982.

There are many generations involved in this story: The past casts a shadow over the present. What connects them is Robert, a journalist asked to do a story about Josemaría Escrivá at the time of his beatification. He discovers that his father Manolo was a childhood friend of Josemaría's, and was in the seminary with him -- though their lives took dramatically different paths. Robert and Manolo are estranged, but the film brings them together at the same time as the terrible truth about the past is revealed.

So this is also about a father and a son, and the truth that needs to be faced in order to overcome what is between them.

This is very much a movie about love, about the strength of its presence and the arid and terrifying world that we inhabit in its absence.

Civil wars are most appalling because they pit brother against brother, family against family. By the end of the Spanish Civil War, half a million people had died.

A civil war is a powerful metaphor for a family. As in civil wars, family members take sides and split up; old resentments become sources of hatred. We don't forgive our aunt for doing this, we don't speak to our father because he left our mother, we don't speak to our mother because she went off with a man, or we don't speak to our son because he chose a different profession than what we expected. Those are the civil wars of our everyday lives. "There Be Dragons" is about both kinds of civil war.

Essentially we've all got to choose whether to hang on to our resentments or find a way of conquering them.

Life can be seen as a series of injustices, of rejections and hurts, or as full of opportunities, of chances to conquer those dragons through the overwhelming desire to replace hatred with love and connection.

Many people have it in them to make that heroic choice. They realize that they can make a choice to be free. They have the strength of character to understand that hate is a prison.

No one who hates can be free. Haven't we seen so many examples of this in the years since the First World War? On the other hand, when people choose to love, the impartial observer can feel it in them -- the sense of freedom, of compassion, of giving.

Finally, we all face this choice. Even Robert, the agnostic and materialist, is asked to choose between love and hate -- to, in a sense, fight the world with love, or as Aline puts it, "to fight God with love."

So this is what this movie is about for me. Forgiveness unlocks what's been frozen. It touches everything human inside the one who is forgiven as it touches everything human in the one who forgives.

Love doesn't, cannot, always come easily. It can't come with a sense of superiority; it can only come with a sense of humility and shared humanity. And yet it has a powerful beauty. It says: "Yes, step out of yourself. You think you can't forgive?" Well, you won't know if you can forgive until you've done it.

And how do you forgive? You forgive by empathizing. You forgive by being that other person. By abandoning demonization, by not saying, "I'm better than that person, I could never do that," but by looking at that person and saying, "That could be me."

So yes, there is room for hope -- even in the most painful, tragic and appalling circumstances, where hope seems impossible.

ZENIT: Does this movie speak to believers, or to nonbelievers?

Joffé: "There Be Dragons" takes faith seriously.

It takes sainthood seriously. But its appeal goes well beyond a religious audience.

The question presupposes a separation that is actually phony. We all live in a troubled world; we all deal with the pain and joy of everyday life, and though we may bring different interpretations of reality to bear on this experience, we all in the end inhabit the same torn and troubled world.

This is a film about believers and non-believers. I was deeply touched by Josemaría's sense that we are all potential saints, his belief that everyone was finally capable of slaying their own dragons.

I hope people watching the film will see in it their own struggles with their own dragons, and recognize his point that no saint ever became a saint without struggle.

The film is also about many forms of love. Ildiko's love for Oriol is a particular kind of love. Her love for making a better world is another kind of love. Manolo's love for Ildiko is yet another type of love, even though it's bound up with jealousy and resentment. The love that Manolo craves and eventually receives is again another very particular kind of love.

These different kinds of love all come together like a spider's web of individual threads, and each thread seems separate, but then the realization dawns that they are all part of a greater whole, attached to the same thing, and leading to the same point, to the same center.

In the end, all these different strands of love that look so different will come back to one fundamental point: "Is this love greater than my self-love?" That's a rich question. And much politics of the early twentieth century was engaged in it.

However, it poses yet another question of deeper complexity. If this passionate love is based on an ideal, or on an idealization, if it is accepting of only one model of human behavior, how does it avoid sliding into bigotry or demonization? Since the Enlightenment this has been a major question.

In the cause of the love of the greater good, many acts of gross humanity have been committed. It seems to me that only by understanding the tragic fallibility of all human beings and all human endeavors can we find a path to understanding and that deep empathy, that sense of oneness with others, that offers freedom from demonization and cycles of unredeemed violence.

This is not a Catholic movie, but it's about a key theme in Christian theology and in all Christian churches, as well as in many other religions.

All religions understand that human beings, in their relationships with each other, play out divine choices -- choices that profoundly affect others and the world around them. That interconnectedness is the basis of love -- what we do for or against others affects us and them because we are all bound together.

ZENIT: How much of the character of Josémaría Escrivá, who is now a saint in the Catholic Church, based on fact, and how much is based on fiction?

Joffé: Of all the characters in the movie, Josemaría is the only one that existed in history, the only one about whom there are plenty of records and evidence.

I believe that the representation of Josemaría that we have in terms of his kind of lovingness, his sense of humor -- which undoubtedly he had -- was brought out by the events of his life and that it's actually very close to who he really was.

I wanted to find an honest viewpoint in portraying his character, and to take his faith at face value, as he did. I suppose the convention with saints is to see them, in weird opposition to the whore with the heart of gold, as men with hearts of lead; but that's just a comfortable convention.

In fact Josemaría's story is that of a man who goes through the extraordinary step of simplifying his life around a pure and powerful love for God. This love for God becomes an organizing principle that gives him a shape and a kind of simplicity and strength.

But that doesn't make him dull or flat, because this love existed in the real world, and the fruit of that existence in the real, often cruel, harsh world, must for any honest man be doubt: doubt in God and doubt in goodness. This doubt is deeply, profoundly fertile.

Love is not spoon-fed to us, as a sine qua non. It has to be fought for. It's what we as human beings have to bring to the table.

We have to find this love deep within ourselves, understanding the dark beauty of our own and other people's frailty. In a profound sense that seems to me to be what the story of Christ demonstrates.

If we are believers we still have to find this love deep in ourselves and offer it to God and his rich creation. If we are not believers we must still find it and offer it to other human beings regardless of politics or race or religion.

ZENIT: Did you have previous ideas about how to represent the Spanish Civil War, or some of the characters, such as St. Josemaría Escrivá?

Joffé: I didn't know much about Josemaría before I was asked to film the movie.

What actually happened was that at one point one of the producers of the movie had come to Holland to persuade me to the do the movie. And he brought various books and materials with him that included a DVD of Josemaría.

We had a very, very nice dinner together, and I walked home thinking: "I don't really want to do this. I've got another project that I really want to do that is set in India and I've worked a long time to get this ready." In other words, I was thinking that it was a very, very nice offer and I really appreciated the meal, but I should say no.

It was a summer evening so I went into the garden, had a glass of white wine, put the DVD into my DVD player, and sat at my computer to type a little letter saying: "Dear X, thank you so much. I appreciate that you've come all this way, but I really think you should look somewhere else."

In the background, however, the DVD was playing and a moment in the story catches my eye, which is Josemaría addressing a large group of people, maybe in Chile, or Argentina, I'm actually not sure where it was, and a girl raises her hand and says, "I've got a question to ask."

And Josemaría says, "Yes, please."

And she says, "I'd like to convert to Christianity."

And he says, "Yes?"

And she says, "But my parents are Jewish and they are not very happy about the idea."

Josemaría, without batting an eyelid, says: "Oh my dear, no, no, honoring your parents is very, very dear to God. God doesn't ask you to dishonor your parents, make your parents unhappy. Absolutely not! What you feel in your heart is what you feel in your heart. No, no, no, don't upset your parents -- don't make your parents feel bad. There's absolutely no need for that."

I looked at that moment in the video and I thought to myself: "What a wonderful moment. What a kind of unexpected and wonderful moment, particularly from an organization which everybody thinks it's bound to say the opposite."

I looked at my computer and I thought, "Wait a minute." I turned the DVD off. I stopped the letter. I went into my screenplay mode and I wrote a scene where Josemaría meets a man who's dying, who he knows from before, who tells him he's Jewish and thinking of converting.

I wrote the whole scene, all the while thinking: "I really want to see that in a film. But I'm never going to see it in a film if I don't do this film, am I? Where would it fit into any other film?"

Instead of the first letter I was going to write, I wrote instead: "Dear X, I'm really interested in doing this project, providing I'm left to follow my own devices, and you're not expecting me to follow any party lines, and if you accept the fact that I'm not very bright and I'll do the best I can, but I have to follow my own truth. If that's okay, I would really love to do this project."

That is pretty much what happened. I had no real preconceptions of Josemaría, some knowledge of course, but mostly I had this moment I experienced with the DVD that sparked my interest in doing the movie.

I was presented with a story about a man that I read, and realized I really respected this man. In fact, more than simply respecting him, I felt that that he enshrined something in his struggle that would speak to all human beings in a rather wonderful way, and that's the story I wanted to tell, and that's what the movie is about.

The Spanish Civil War, of course, was equally complex to deal with. It would have been easy to take sides, but that would have betrayed the central thrust of the way that I wanted to tell this story.

History is notoriously partisan, written by the victors and rewritten by the vanquished. Many will simply believe the rumor or myth that they find most palatable and I am sure we're going to battle some opinions about what Opus Dei is or was, about who Josemaría was, and what the Spanish Civil War was really "about."

I wanted to show what was going on in Spain during the civil war without partisanship. In fact Spain was going through, in a very condensed period of time, something that Britain, for instance, had been through and absorbed for a hundred years.

Industrial revolution, stark class ideologies, plus in Spain loss of empire and economic instability -- in Spain things were drawn starkly, more in black and white. It was actually very easy for Spanish society to fracture and very easy -- in the thinking of the time -- to take ultimate and utterly opposing views about social justice, the role of the Church, and so on.

Eventually, as is the nature of these social tensions, the more extreme views started tugging the others apart. As the center weakened, the two opposing poles began to get stronger.

Both sides in the Spanish Civil War had ideals and a sense of their own virtue. In common with similar political movements in the rest of Europe, people on both sides of the political divide began to demonize the other.

But what in Europe became national divides in Spain remained fratricidal and left psychological scars that are deep and hard to heal. What was happening in Spain was wounding and complicated and really split families in a most painful and harrowing way.

Brother chose differently to brother, but does that mean they're no longer brothers? If it does mean they are no longer brothers -- if we're willing to kill our brothers for the sake of what we believe -- then what does that ask about the value of our choices?

ZENIT: Did working on this film influence you somehow in your personal life?

Joffé: Let me answer the question in the following way: I'm not really very religious but I was asked to write about a man who was.

I had to take a step back and say: "When I write about Josemaría, I must take at face value -- utterly, honestly, and truthfully -- everything that Josemaría is telling me he stood for, that his life was about, and that his religious experience was about. I must read about religious experience without prejudice, honestly; and just let it look at me in the face."

I read a lot about religious experience. I was moved and delighted to find how many scientists ( in particular physicists) were deeply involved in experiencing God, and I was moved to find that the divide between science and religion that has become so much the current thinking of our time was in fact false.

I came to understand the great discovery of modern physics that our sense of reality is based on the models of it we make in our brains, but that there are therefore many models of reality.

Many of them are insufficient to explain all things, but suitable to explain some; they offer us a new way of understanding what in fact reality or realities may be and that this understanding in no way precludes the idea of God or a spiritual dimension to the grand universe that we inhabit, but rather that the way that science has led us to redefine and reinterpret what is real offers us also a chance to reinterpret and redefine the spiritual.

I probably won't know for a few years how this experience has affected me. I think something profound takes a little bit of time to reveal itself for what it really is.

Therefore, I found a very odd thing out of filming "There Be Dragons," which is that, rather than this being a lonely experience, which I thought it might be, I found it extremely engaging and not lonely at all.

To suddenly think, "Well let me lay aside my simple answers and just live with the question," was to me wonderfully compelling and made me feel very, very close to this process of living in a way I don't think I've felt before. And I'm not sure now where that might lead.

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