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Monday, June 08, 2009

There be Dragons

UPDATE: There's a story in the New York Times today on the movie - Bringing a Saint’s Life to the Screen

- Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer (Charlie Cox), hiding out in a mental hospital during the Spanish Civil War, in There Be Dragons

Interesting story in The Independent .....


Opus Dei lets film director in on some of its secrets

Elizabeth Nash


The British film-maker Roland Joffe, who made his mark with his religious drama The Mission about crusading Jesuits in the Brazilian jungle, is to tackle an even more controversial chapter in the history of Catholicism: Opus Dei. Joffe is to recreate the life and miracles of Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer, the Spanish priest who founded one of the most influential and secretive organisations within the Catholic church, and was canonised in 2002. The film seems set to stir up more controversy, following in the wake of several screen hits tapping into public fascination with tales of Opus-inspired crimes and conspiracies, which have set Vatican chasubles aflap.

The Opus furiously condemned the blockbusting Da Vinci Code in 2006, and its sequel Angels and Demons currently topping the bestseller lists. Opus members were banned from seeing or talking about Javier Fesser’s award-winning Camino, 2008, about the cult of suffering. By contrast, Joffe’s There be Dragons has received Opus Dei’s blessing. “The film team asked us for help in gathering information and we gave them access to the documentation. That’s the beginning and end of our collaboration with this film,” says Mr Luis Gordon, Opus Dei’s former information officer. Mr Gordon said he was reserving judgment on the project’s merits. The organisation denies reports that it was providing funds.

The plot starts from the present day, when a young London journalist decides to visit his estranged father who is dying in Spain, and mend fences. By chance the young man investigates one of his father’s old friends, a priest, now dead, who is a candidate for sainthood.

The action zigzags through the violence and hatred of Spain’s Civil War and crosses the Pyrenees to France, as the journalist uncovers the complex friendship that bonded the two men from childhood. Production notes in El Pais newspaper describe the film as “a drama full of passion, betrayal, love and religion... [it] reveals the importance and eternal power of forgiveness”.

The Argentine-Spanish-US co-production will be shot over coming months at the pilgrimage site of Lujan in Argentina, and in Spain. The feature will star British actor Charlie Cox, who has worked in Spain with the director, Vicente Aranda.

The film focuses on the early years of Escriva’s life during the 1930s, prompting concern that his rise during the Franco years may be brushed over. “This is a propaganda film written and supervised by members of Opus Dei in a desperate attempt to clean up its battered image in the eyes of public opinion,” says an anti-Opus blog of former members who say they were “mentally and spiritually diminished” by the organisation.

The Escriva project circulated among Spanish film-makers for some time, stymied by the inability to find an actor for the leading role. Colin Farrell and the Argentine Juan Diego Botto are among those who had the script pass through their hands.

Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer was born in north east Spain in 1902, son of an Aragonese shopkeeper. He studied for the priesthood and moved to Madrid where, in 1928, he founded Opus Dei, a secretive organisation that urged the individual to pursue sanctity through their work and daily life. It became influential during Franco’s dictatorship and still retains support among members of Spain's political and economic establishment. Members are reluctant to declare themselves, or their medieval practices.

When Escriva died in Rome in 1975 bishops worldwide clamoured for him to be canonised, which he was in October 2002 by Pope John Paul II in St Peters in Rome. Roland Joffe has long wanted to make a film about Escriva. It was one of this “big projects’, he said, along with a movie about the life of the spy Mata Hari ...

- The Independent


Joffe did a great job with The Mission, but I can't imagine how this film will turn out. I find Opus Dei a bit creepy, and that's not based on The Da Vinci Code :) but on things I've read about their way of proceeding in the US and in Latin America, and about their founder. Speaking of which, for those interested, Fr. James Martin SJ once wrote something about Opus Dei for America magazine in 1995 ..... Opus Dei In the United States.


Blogger Liam said...

Opus Dei is a right-wing cult. I loved the Mission, but I will be disappointed at any attempt to whitewash Escriva de Balaguer.

6:12 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Liam,

Yeah, those are my thoughts too.

11:08 AM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

Liam's description is perfect. They are a right-wing cult.

How disappointing for Joffe to be doing this. I guess I should wait to see the film, but just doing it at all is going to give Opus more publicity.


2:52 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Yeah, such a departure from The Mission. It seems like liberation theology and Opus Dei theology are miles apart.

5:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the film is about the person, not about the organization. it's not the same. He who had known about Escriva's life, knows he took a really cinematographic life. I'm really tired of mediocre biographical films. i hope this film really interested.

1:55 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks for the comment. I've only read a little about Escriva and his writings but I wasn't won over by that little bit - I've read he admired Hitler and Franco, for instnace. Doesn't mean it won't be a good movie.

10:24 AM  
Anonymous sebastian said...

I do not know much about this film, but I do know about Josemaria Escriva's life and for sure he did not admire Hitler nor Franco, believe me. I hope this movie will show how a good person this priest was. In any case, I agree with Anonymous saying that we've been missing serious biographical film attempts. Let’s see what this film has to offer :)

9:43 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Sebastian,

There are allegations about Josemaria Escriva admiring Hitler - I don't know if they can be shown to be true or false. This seems to be the case with most of criticisms of him, and there are many, that Opus Dei has done an enthusiastic job of explaining them away. I guess I'm not convinced. That doesn't mean the film won't be a good one, though.

1:25 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

A letter fom Escriva to Franco can be read here.

11:55 AM  
Anonymous CV said...

For those who believe that Opus Dei is a "right wing cult," just a little reminder that St. Josemaria Escriva is a canonized saint.

I have more than 10 years of personal experience with this organization. I participate in occasional retreats and evenings of recollection and have benefited a great deal, although I feel no personal vocation to "join" by becoming a lay supernumerary.

I'm here to tell you that the only thing Opus Dei is concerned with is helping lay people pursue the universal call to holiness (that's straight out of Vatican II, and St. Josemaria was championing that notion several decades before VII). In the retreats and evenings of recollection, you'll be encouraged to pray more, receive the sacrament of confession, try to attend mass more often (beyond once a week that is), and say the rosary. That's it, and that's simple Catholicism.

For a fair and balanced look at Opus Dei through the eyes of an outsider, I recommend John Allen's recent book. He writes for the National Catholic Reporter, which can hardly be considered a "right wing" publication.

While I admire Fr. James Martin's writing and think he's done a great deal to communicate the faith well, I really think he did a disservice to Opus Dei with that article he write many moons ago for America.

And hey, for what it's worth, I'm a registered Democrat :-) Go figure.

2:40 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


Thanks for the comment and for a different perspective.

I was just reading about Franco, about the Spanish Civil War, and also about the role Opus Dei played in Franco's government (from a Library of Congress Country Study article). Given Escriva's apparent approval of Franco's government and some of his religious beliefs (his ideas about suffering, for instance), I can't bring myself to respect him, saint though he might be.

But that's not to say that the experience a person today might have in participating in Opus Dei functions can't be in many ways positive.

3:07 PM  
Anonymous CV said...

Well, I'm no expert on the Spanish Civil War, which was the climate in which Opus Dei took root and grew, but I'll just point again to what reporter John Allen discovered. This is from America magazine's review of Allen's book:

"..An illustration of Mr. Allen’s technique can be seen in his examination of the charge that Opus Dei’s founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá, was a pro-Franco fascist. Mr. Allen describes the accusations and fills in the historical background. “[I]t’s worth noting that in the context of the Spanish Civil War, in which anticlerical Republican forces killed 13 bishops, 4,000 diocesan priests, 2,000 male religious, and 300 nuns, virtually every group and layer of life in the Catholic Church in Spain was ‘pro-Franco.’” The author goes on to note that despite this fact, “there is no instance in which [Escrivá] either praised or criticized the regime” throughout its long reign. “In the 1930s and 1940s, when the overwhelming sentiment in Catholic Spain was pro-Franco, Escrivá’s silence was therefore often read to betoken a hidden liberalism; by the 1960s and 1970s, when Catholic opinion had shifted, that same silence was interpreted as masking a pro-Franco conservatism,” he writes. While he concedes that Opus Dei members served in Franco’s ministry, he notes that this was unusual—only eight served over the course of 36 years, in Mr. Allen’s careful account. He also describes how many Opus Dei members joined the anti-Franco opposition. “The overall impression one gets is that Escrivá strove to maintain neutrality with respect to the Franco regime, even if privately he felt some sympathy for a leader trying by his lights to be an upright Christian,” Mr. Allen concludes. “A charge of ‘pro-Franco’ cannot be sustained, except in the generic sense that most Spanish Catholics were initially supportive of Franco.... The most one can say is that Escrivá was not ‘anti-Franco’ either.”

Here is a good Q & A with Allen regarding Opus Dei:

Regarding the role of suffering, by which I presume you mean corporal mortification practices, in Opus Dei, it's worth noting that these practices have been part of Catholic tradition for about 2,000 years. Opus Dei didn't invent these practices, and very holy people such as Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta were also known to appreciate the value of corporal mortification.

That said, in a society like ours, most people are inclined to strenuously avoid suffering in any way shape or form (myself included). Unless of course, it is suffering for personal gain or development such as running a marathon, or denying oneself ice cream and carbs, or undergoing plastic surgery. Then it's considered to be the kind of self-sacrifice to be admired.

I guess people who see the value in corporal mortification (fasting, for example) would say that the value of "no pain, no gain" applies to the spiritual life also.

I am sure I sound like an apologist for Opus Dei, but I speak as someone who had serious reservations about this group early on when someone close to me became involved. Since then, I have read every scrap of information I could find, positive and negative. I've read the ODAN website and books by St. Josemaria. Most importantly, I've had close contact with many, many extraordinarily humble and holy Opus Dei people, from priests to lay people (and I should also mention I've never been pressured to join, give money, etc. Some cult.)

Bottom line, IMO, they have been very, VERY unfairly maligned over the years, especially St. Josemaria.

.02 from a former skeptic.

6:07 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


Yeah, I don't know much about the Spanish Civil War either, aside from what I've read in Wikipedia :) What I did glean was that one of the reasons the republican government was so anti-clerical was that the Church was pretty much on the side of the wealthy and the powerful (sort of the opposite of liberation theology) which explains some of the criticism of the recent idea of canonizing religious killed in that war.

In fact, there was a recent story about the Basque Catholic priests killed by Franco's forces - Spain: Bishops apologise for Church silence over Civil War killings - most of the Catholics in the Basque region of Spain supported the republicans, not Franco.

As for Josemaría Escrivá never expressing his feelings about Franco, there's a letter he wrote to Franco that can be read online here in which he expresses his esteem for Franco.

Thanks for the link to the Allen interview - I'll take a look.

It's true, suffering/mortification has a long and respected history in the Church. Fasting is a good example, but I've read that Josemaría Escrivá would practice quite extreme physical self-punishment.

My own feeling is that suffering is bad, that we should not want to suffer, and we should do what we can to save ourselves and others from suffering. To embrace suffering because Jesus suffered seems wrongheaded to me - he did not embrace suffering, he was tortured and put to death, and he made the effort to undue all the suffering he came across in others by healing/helping them.

Thanks, though, for commenting - I do appreciate you giving your point of view. You have actual experience with Opus Dei and I've only read about them, so I do give weight to your opinion :)

7:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think there's any evidence Escriva "admired" Hitler, other than a single-source claim that he remarked that Hitler was anti-Communist. (Which he was, after all.)

Compare that to this:

"I have always said that if Great Britain were defeated in war I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among the nations."

Who said it? Winston Churchill. Fact is, hindsight confers a great advantage.

11:25 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


Thanks for the comment.

Wikipedia has this on the subject ...

The alleged statements by Escrivá include: "Vlad, Hitler couldn't have been such a bad person. He couldn't have killed six million. It couldn't have been more than four million." and "Hitler against the Jews, Hitler against the Slavs, this means Hitler against Communism."
... and gives this as the source - link

It's true that it would be hard to prove if he did or did not admire Hitler, and that perhaps many people we admire may have also admired Hitler. The difference is, maybe, that we didn't make those other people saints.

12:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


The following remarks can be found in St Josemaria's writings:

"It is not patriotism to justify crimes... or to deny the rights of other peoples." (SOURCE)

"Love your own country: it is a Christian virtue to be patriotic. But if patriotism becomes nationalism, which leads you to look at other people, at other countries, with indifference, with scorn, without Christian charity and justice, then it is a sin." (SOURCE)

"Before the Lord there is no difference of nation, race, class, state... Each one of us has been born in Christ to be a new creature, a son of God. We are all brothers, and we have to behave fraternally towards one another!" (SOURCE)

Hardly the words of a National Socialist, or of a fellow traveller.

4:17 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Good quotes. I bow to your greater knowledge of St Josemaria. I really must do some more reading about him - thanks :)

4:34 PM  
Blogger Patricia said...

Opus Dei is nothing else but sanctify your daily life trough ordinary activities, like work. Anything else is false.
I mean, Jesus Christ was crucify for doing just good... it could not be different for such a wonderful part of the Catholic Church.

11:07 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks for your comment, Patricia.

11:44 AM  
Blogger Alicia said...

dear Crystal,
i agree with you that you should do some more reading about St. Josemaria ;) (so should i)
and i just want to thank CV for your posts... i was getting worried once i had read the first few comments !
what Opus Dei IS and the idea that some people have of it are two very different things!
to all - something i have learnt from experience: be careful how and when you criticise, it could expose your ignorance

8:49 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


Thanks for your comment. I'll admit, it never hurts to read more about any subject of interest, but I have to admit, so far I haven't changed my mind about Opus Dei or the founder of the order.

10:37 PM  
Anonymous Grace said...

Opus dei is far from a secretive organization but rather an organization that embraces new members to its mission of loving the world passionately and being a positive example for humanity.
I encourage all of you to do independent research on the true mission of opus dei instead of accepting the falsehoods presented in fictional movies like the Da Vinci code and recommended reading john Allen's book or even the very accessible works by josemaria himself -- like 'the way'.

4:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All I can say about Opus Dei is that servile work (at the very least) is part of the punishment that man must endure as a result of Adam and Eve's sin, and for which they were thrown out of paradise.


9:14 AM  
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