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The Dragons of Life

Fr. John Paul Wauck is a professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, and he was an on-set adviser to the movie There Be Dragons, a positive portrayal of religion — based on the early years of St. Josemaría Escrivá — that will be on the silver screen starting today. Fr. Wauck talks to National Review Online about the movie itself and what he picked up about moviemaking along the way.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What was your official role with There Be Dragons?

WAUCK: In the credits, it says I’m a “consultant.” Basically, the director, Roland Joffé, wanted me to do what the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan did for his earlier film, The Mission – be on hand during the filming to help the actors and answer questions. So in 2009, I ended up spending about four months on a movie set, all summer in Argentina and then a few weeks in Spain in October.

LOPEZ: How did you get involved?

WAUCK: Like a lot of things in Rome, it all began with a good dinner. I met Roland Joffé back in late 2006 over pasta at the Taverna Giulia while he was in town to do research on St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei. Since I’m one of the few English-speaking priests of Opus Dei in Rome, it was natural that he and I would meet.

LOPEZ: It’s not a proselytizing film, though, is it?

WAUCK: No. One of the amazing things about the film is that Roland — who not only directed it but also wrote the screenplay — is not a Catholic, or a Christian, or even a theist. He calls himself a “wobbly agnostic.” It’s a film for everyone, believers and nonbelievers. It doesn’t try to prove a point or convert anyone. But it should make you think. All the people I’ve spoken with over here say they like the movie even more the second time they see it.

LOPEZ: I’ve heard that it had quite an effect on one or two of the actors involved in it. Is that true?

WAUCK: The two main actors, Charlie Cox and Wes Bentley, were both deeply affected by their experience making this movie — especially Wes. While we were filming in Argentina, Charlie, who is a baptized Catholic, told a group of reporters in Buenos Aires, “My relationship with the Catholic Church and with God has certainly been profoundly affected for the better throughout this process.” And Wes has spoken publicly about how he got sober while making There Be Dragons. He had been seriously addicted to drugs and alcohol for nearly a decade, and he turned his life around while he was on the set: “I found so much in my relationships with Roland and Charlie Cox and the rest of the cast. . . . I found a reconnection to God and to people and to life. . . . There was something very special spiritually on this film. I’ve never had it before.” Now Wes is married and has a little boy. It’s a beautiful story. Olga Kurylenko — who was also in the last James Bond movie — has said that her attitude toward religion changed thanks to the movie.

LOPEZ: What a weird title for a movie about a saint. What’s that about?

WAUCK: “There be dragons” is a reference to the Latin phrase Hic sunt dracones (literally, “There are dragons here”), with which medieval maps sometimes designated unexplored lands and uncharted seas. It’s the realm of mystery, the unknown, and the dangerous. In the movie, though, the dragons are mostly a metaphor for the challenges of life that we all have to face, particularly suffering, death, and guilt. How different people respond to these challenges is what the movie is all about. Some are destroyed by these dragons, others become saints, and others just keep wrestling.

LOPEZ: Is it a movie about a saint?

WAUCK: St. Josemaría is one of the main characters, but not the only one. Like Joffé’s The Mission and The Killing Fields, this new film has at least two protagonists. And, to complicate matters, in a recent interview, Joffé suggested that the real protagonist of There Be Dragons is Jesus Christ! That came as a bit of a surprise to me. I’ll have to see it again.

There Be Dragons is not a hagiography, a documentary, or a “biopic.” It’s a big picture that happens to have a saint in the middle of it.

LOPEZ: Is this one of those films that church groups have to buy out theaters in order to guarantee that anyone sees it? Or does this have a broader appeal?

WAUCK: Roland Joffé didn’t make this movie to preach to the choir. He made it for people like himself — people fascinated by life’s mysteries. The movie’s seriousness and its artistic quality (four Oscar winners — not counting Joffé himself — worked on it) should make it appealing to all movie fans. One of the most important critics in Spain said that, even though he has no sympathy for Opus Dei, he had to admit that Joffé had made a fine film.

LOPEZ: More than one person has referred to it as the anti–Da Vinci Code. Is that your view?

WAUCK: There Be Dragons isn’t intended as an answer to The Da Vinci Code, but if people want to see it that way — why not? Be my guest. It certainly gives you a different perspective on Opus Dei. I see that John Paul II’s spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, has expressed his hope that the fans of The Da Vinci Code will go to see There Be Dragons and get some idea of what Opus Dei is really about. I do hope that Dan Brown and Ron Howard see it. And frankly, this film is a lot better than The Da Vinci Code.

LOPEZ: Why is Escrivá important for people beyond the Opus Dei world to know?

WAUCK: Escrivá is an important figure because he brought to life what you might call a new culture of sanctity — a kind of holiness that is immersed in ordinary day-to-day living, a union with God that takes place not despite but rather in and through one’s work, family life, and friendships. Escrivá talked about being a contemplative in the middle of the world. In a way, it’s all about imitating the 30 years that Jesus — the Son of God — spent living and working in Nazareth. That idea — finding something divine, discovering the “quid divinum” in your daily life — is very attractive, even to non-Catholics and non-Christians. A while ago, Roland Joffé, speaking about this, told an interviewer, “There’s something very, very beautiful and perfect about this idea, because it’s open to so many people to achieve the best for themselves in life. So I think that it’s a wonderful idea to say, Look, if you want to have a spiritual relationship with God, do it through your everyday life, do it through simple things, do it when you’re cooking a meal, do it with your family.”

LOPEZ: Why is Opus Dei so secretive, then?

WAUCK: I must admit I always get a kick out of being told I’m secretive before I even have a chance to hide something. I always want to say, “Wait, wait. You haven’t even asked me a question. What would you like to know?” Seriously, I think that the supposed “secrecy” of Opus Dei is something of an illusion. Opus Dei is about sanctifying ordinary life, and it becomes known through the natural channels of ordinary life: friendships, professional contacts, family relationships. So it’s natural that there are no billboards, flashing lights, fanfare, or funny clothing. But there’s no secrecy either. It’s just people trying to be saints and apostles while going about their business.

LOPEZ: There’s one scene in the movie that might freak people out, though. The scene involving a whip. How do you explain that to “outsiders”?

WAUCK: The flagellation scene may well be controversial, but — after all the fuss that was made about The Da Vinci Code — it would probably have been even more controversial to have left it out. Why St. Josemaría has become the poster child for this very traditional form of penance, practiced by so many Christians over the centuries, including popes and saints in our own time (Padre Pio, Mother Theresa, Paul VI, etc.), is a bit of a puzzle to me. Obviously, in the conceptual framework of the movie, this scene exemplifies one of the possible responses to the “dragon” of guilt: One can ask for God’s forgiveness and do penance — for one’s own sins and those of others. From a secular point of view, Roland has said that it’s Josemaría’s way of saying that he is not alien to the anger and hatred — the evil — that is going on around him at that moment. It expresses a shared responsibility for human sin and weakness.

In a recent interview, Roland said something quite fascinating about that scene: “I wanted to say to the audience, ‘This is a private moment, really. We’re not really allowed to see this.’ So I’m not going to present it in an overly dramatic way. I’m going to shoot through a door, through a window, into a mirror, where, for a second, you see what’s going on. Then you hear the sound. Then you see all his disciples thinking about what that means, because that’s how this sort of thing should be thought about. We’re not jumping to any conclusion. We’re thinking about what it means, and respecting it.”

LOPEZ: What’s with all these movements — Opus Dei, Communio, etc.? There used to just be Catholics, didn’t there?

WAUCK: Well, Opus Dei isn’t really a “movement.” It’s a personal prelature, which is something new under the sun — a nonterritorial ecclesiastical jurisdiction made up of laity and priests, under a prelate. Opus Dei is the first and only one in existence. But the Church has also had many different spiritual families and associations. I don’t mean just the countless religious orders and congregations, but also confraternities, sodalities, pious associations of all sorts — you name it. I think it’s one of the ways the Holy Spirit keeps the Church young.

LOPEZ: Was the timing of the film’s release — less than a week after the beatification of John Paul II — planned?

WAUCK: Pure coincidence — I mean, Providence. Actually, it’s wonderfully appropriate. First, because There Be Dragons is, in a way, a movie about the impact of sanctity, and we just had that — big time — in St. Peter’s Square last weekend. Second, because John Paul II’s decision, in 1982, to open Escrivá’s cause of beatification is what triggers the movie’s plot, and at the very end of the film there is an image of St. Josemaría’s canonization in 2002. So you could say that the movie begins and ends with actions taken by John Paul II.

LOPEZ: What was Blessed John Paul II’s relationship with St. Josemaría?

WAUCK: They never met. St. Josemaría died in 1975. But, obviously, Blessed John Paul II’s decisions to make Opus Dei a personal prelature and to canonize St. Josemaría reflect a deep appreciation of the spirit of Opus Dei and the personal holiness of Escrivá. John Paul II called him “the saint of the ordinary.”

LOPEZ: Was Escrivá as joyful — though he has his moments! — as he seems as a young priest in the movie?

WAUCK: Everyone who knew Escrivá was struck by his cheerfulness and energy. Fortunately, there are lots of videos on the Internet now where you can see him in action, laughing, joking — just exuding joie de vivre. He saw cheerfulness as a natural consequence of his faith that God was his father, and I think that comes through in the movie, even though he passes through some terrible trials.

LOPEZ: Let me ask you, as an expert on the film: What should people watch for when they go to see There Be Dragons?

WAUCK: Remember, this film is not a “biopic.” It’s more like a mosaic or a jigsaw puzzle, made up of pieces of different shapes, sizes, and colors. The most important pieces are the different characters’ responses to the “dragons” of suffering, death, and guilt.

Another group of pieces has to do with fatherhood. The movie is full of all sorts of fathers: good, bad, human, divine, biological, spiritual. One of the characters doesn’t want to be a father. So, just listen for the word “father,” and notice how it’s used. In a way, the movie raises the basic question of identity: Whose children are we? And this ends up being closely related to the themes of love and forgiveness. In fact, the ultimate sign of forgiveness in the film is the simple word “Dad.”

Finally, this is a movie about meaning. At the center of the film there’s a bet. One character bets another that suffering (and by extension life itself) has no meaning at all, and the movie shows us how he loses the bet. The other character, Escrivá, struggling to assemble the pieces of his own experience into a coherent meaning, discovers his vocation. At the same time, there is a series of female characters who comment — like a Greek chorus, from the sidelines — on the meaning of the action: An elderly superstitious nanny speaks about dragons and the threads of life; a modern mathematical physicist speaks about probability, chance, and coincidence; a mysterious girl in an insane asylum sees meaning in terms of religious mysticism.

If you just want to have fun, keep an eye out for roses, from the first scene to the last. You’ll be surprised.

LOPEZ: Do you have a favorite behind-the-scenes story to tell?

WAUCK: Not many people know that the dead Josemaría, lying on the floor in the opening scene, is not a professional actor but rather the real-life father of Charlie Cox. Makes sense: He’s playing the grown-up version of Charlie’s character. He was visiting the set in Argentina that day, and it was his professional acting debut.

One thing I’ll always remember is the Sunday morning when Roland Joffé showed up at the door of the Opus Dei center in Buenos Aires. It was about 9 a.m. I’d just celebrated Mass, and we were eating breakfast when the doorbell rang. Somewhat surprised that anyone would be calling at that hour, I went to the door and opened it. And there was Roland, holding a brand-new Ralph Lauren winter coat. It was for me. I said earlier that the filming took place in the summer, but of course our summer is winter in Argentina, and Roland was worried that I was going to get sick. Probably, being from Chicago, I’d given him the impression — not entirely false — that I was not taking the Argentinian winter seriously enough!

LOPEZ: Is there a book on Escrivá that you recommend for those who are interested? One that is not Opus Dei propaganda?

WAUCK: I’d say that, for someone intrigued by the movie, the best book to read on Escrivá is Uncommon Faith, by John Coverdale, who not only knew St. Josemaría personally but was a professor of modern Spanish history at Princeton and Northwestern. It deals precisely with the years covered in the movie. Another great book, which was very useful to Roland Joffé while he was writing There Be Dragons, is Dream and Your Dreams Will Fall Short, by Pedro Casciaro, who was one of the first members of Opus Dei. In the movie, he’s seen as a young architecture student, played by the great Spanish actor Unax Ugalde. His book is a delightful personal memoir, full of anecdotes and beautifully written.

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