Today on the Word on Fire blog, Father Steve reviews two films about priests: Roland Joffe's "There Be Dragons" and Scott Stewart's "Priest." Be sure to take a look at his review before heading to the movie theater this weekend...
I have a small reproduction of Picasso’s “Guernica” hanging on a wall in my sitting room at the rectory. The monumental original hangs in Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. Some friends of mine who have seen the print have wondered if I have communist sympathies. Others have wondered if, despite any protests to the contrary, I am deep down an ideological modernist in terms of my aesthetic tastes. Neither is true. I am too conventional to be that avant garde. The painting is a reminder to me of the violence of the twentieth century and the convoluted forms depicted in Picasso’s work represent the agonies of an age of total war. Guernica is a Basque town which was bombed on April 26th, 1937. The catastrophe is but one part of the many atrocities that beset Spain during its Civil War and it is seen as symbolic of not only these terrors but of the horrors which would later engulf the European continent. Picasso’s painting is a rendering of the emotional impact of the event, and in this regard, it is utterly effective.
I thought of Guernica in relation to Roland Joffe’s There Be Dragons, which is as much a story about the Spanish Civil War as it is about the sanctity of Josemaria Escriva, the founder of the Opus Dei, which was forged in this crucible. The Spanish Civil War is a macrocosm which correlates to Escriva’s microcosm. The film seeks to establish Escriva’s sanctity by a kind of indirection (his influence on the lives of others), rather than simply focusing on the saint’s heroic deeds, which is itself a tribute to the kind of spirituality that Escriva advocated. Opus Dei, at least it seems to me, is about the low-key death to self that happens as one seeks the offer of grace as it is given in the immediacy of life’s circumstances- whatever they may be.
Joffe has featured priests before in his films. “The Mission” highlighted the work of Jesuits in colonial South America (a film which, like There be Dragons, is visually compelling), but I found its ultimate message to be nihilistic. Dragons is different and does not falter in its purpose to present how a life full of purpose, in this case, Escriva’s, can itself be the catalyst by which others find a higher purpose for their own lives. The impact of Escriva’s witness continues to be felt by the thousands of members of the movement he founded. Is this what There be Dragons is about? I am still not sure.
Maybe since the Spanish Civil War figures so prominently in the film it is more than just a backdrop for the personal drama of Escriva? I wonder. This catastrophe still broods over Spain and is also an undercurrent that remains very close to the surface, ready to spill over at the slightest provocation. Perhaps Escriva’s “Opus Dei” presented in the film is a remedy to similar conflicts, and by that I mean not so much the movement itself, but the idea that the personal holiness engendered in the microcosm of our lives has the potential to prevent, or at least allow us to come to terms with the “Guernicas” that afflict the macrocosm of human history. In this respect Picasso’s own words about his painting might provide insight when he said that he made “Guernica” to be a painting, and if the viewer gives meaning to certain things about it, these meanings might be true, but that it is not his idea to give this meaning. I might be asking too much of Joffe’s film and the meaning that I was seeking from it just might not be what he had in mind.
Where There be Dragon presents a real life priest who becomes a saint, the recent violent fantasy/horror film, Priest by Scott Stewart, presents a dystopian future in which priests have become warriors. In a world in which civilization has been hemmed into great walled cities because of the onslaught of vampiric creatures, the Church and its warrior priests exercise total control. The sacramentals of the faith have become weapons of worldly power, rather than conduits of divine grace. It seems that the efforts of these kick-ass clergymen have done their job, and the threat is now less imminent. I guess the legions of these warrior priests now face certain retirement or re-assignment into the structures of power through which the Church governs the frightened survivors of the war. One priest, played by actor Paul Bettany, resists and finds ample evidence that there are still battles left to be fought.
This is yet another film that owes its storyline to a graphic novel and is evidence of the limits of this genre as a basis for a film. It is all about visual effects and the disturbing juxtaposition of Christian symbolism with terrifying images presented for the purposes of mayhem and violence. One wishes that the blasphemy and horror were in some way intended as symbolic manifestations of the interior struggles of the soul, but this type of potential depth is not even on the filmmaker’s radar screen. Of course the priest finds his mission as he abandons his relationship with the Church- at what point will the avatars of the popular culture realize that this plot device has become a cliché and if they really wanted to surprise their audience they would craft a tale in which a priest actually realized his life’s purpose in relation to, rather than in opposition, to the Church he is supposed to represent.
The director of Priest admits that the contours of the plot for his film are borrowed from a much better movie- John Ford's The Searchers, starring John Wayne. Scott Stewart called Priest an homage to this film. I say The Searchers really doesn’t need this kind of tribute. In fact, placing “Priest” in relation to Ford’s picture might best be described as a kind of sacrilege.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.