Roland Joffe Explores Faith in 'There Be Dragons'

By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service

(RNS) British film director Roland Joffe calls himself a "wobbly agnostic." But in his Oscar-winning 1986 film The Mission about Jesuit missionaries in South America, and the upcoming film There Be Dragons, faith takes center stage.

There Be Dragons, which opens on Friday (May 5), is a historical epic based on the life of Spanish St. Josemaria Escriva, who founded the secretive and powerful Catholic order Opus Dei.

The 65-year-old director spoke about faith, free will and what it takes to become a saint. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Your film The Mission is a particular favorite for many Catholics. Do you see any connection between it and There Be Dragons?

In a sense, both movies are about the place of love in the world, and love, of course, is deeply connected with God. In some sense that's the most powerful connection. I also think they both deal with the full richness of the human experience, particularly evil and free will.

How do you mean?

Free will is a very powerful concept, even as we debate what it is, and whether we can exercise it. When I was making the movie, an odd idea struck me: In some ways the emotions you feel when watching a movie may reveal the ways in which God responds to us. Like God, movie spectators cannot intervene. If you intervene, you take away choice.

Why do you call yourself a "wobbly agnostic"?

I was brought up to have an inquiring and curious mind. This film got me to consider very seriously the idea of faith. Faith gets a bad rap from hard-line atheists, who treat it as a belief system free from questions. In fact, faith is an act of extraordinary effort and exquisite beauty. It's the application of reason to human experience, and the understanding that life is asking us to answer certain questions. The struggle to answer those questions is what faith is. It's actually a great human labor.

What made you want to make a movie about Josemaria Escriva?

One thing that really struck me is Josemaria's belief that the spiritual -- the ability to approach God -- could be found in every dimension of life. I wondered, "How could one find God amid the (Spanish) Civil War?"

So, is there a message in this movie?

I think this movie says we all live spiritual lives whether you like it or not because there are two aspects to every person: mental and physiological, and they perform different functions. This movie doesn't preach, this movie just describes. I think sometimes religious movies may be in a panic that they are fighting a receding tide of interest so they have to preach.

The Da Vinci Code painted a pretty grim picture of Opus Dei. Do you see your film as a counter to that image?

I think my film certainly comes up with a different understanding of what the founder's intentions are. It's not a publicity stunt for Opus Dei at all, but it is an attempt to find what Josemaria was all about. What I tried to express is the question of what faith is to each individual, and this central idea of Josemaria's -- that God is to be found among the living.

People have raised questions about Opus Dei's role in financing the picture. Did the group have much of an influence on the film?

Their role in what the movie says is very, very small. Some Opus Dei members read it, but they did so just to see if I was making stuff up that had no relevance. Storytelling must always blend with history. They left me completely free with that. There isn't an Opus Dei line (in the movie); it's only a platform for thinking about individual consciences.

How would you like audiences to react to your film?

A movie reflects what's inside people. If it's not in there, a movie cannot put it there. But one of the things Escriva said is that every human being is capable of being a saint. What he is saying is that in their treatment of the pain in other people's lives, human beings can draw on the resources of love and forgiveness. Inside each of us is the potential for extraordinary things.