How many framing devices can one film possibly need? There Be Dragons starts with a text crawl, moves onto the introduction of a character who only exists to discover a story, and then throws a voiceover into the mix (an unreliable voiceover at that, which recounts scenes the narrator wasn’t privy to - or only heard about through letters). It’s incredibly convoluted.
The film purports to be about Josemaría Escrivá, a newly minted saint who founded Opus Dei back in the 20s. But instead, much of its runtime is taken up with the story of Roberto and Manolo Torres: Manolo knew Escrivá when they were kids, and Roberto wants to write a book about him, so he overcomes his lifelong hatred of his father long enough to have a deathbed chat about his life.
The idea, ultimately, is to have their lives intertwine with various other people and world events, and prove Escrivá’s point, that God is everywhere, and living a good life - particularly with regard to loving and forgiving others - is the best way to honour Him.
Frustratingly, the film just doesn’t work. It’s too much. There are too many characters, too many events, and too much time to cover. There’s no way to make it all work. Writer/director Joffé compounds the complications of his script with an ever-moving camera that’s constantly grabbing reflections or framing characters in odd ways, which is initially fascinating but quickly distracts from everything else that’s going on.
There Be Dragons is ambitious, in its way, but it falls far too far short of what it needs to be. It should be an epic story of love and betrayal and hope and pain, and it should go all out for all of those things, but at every turn it holds back, perhaps for fear of seeming ridiculous. But you’ve got to be kind of ridiculous to make something like this work. You’ve got to be fearless. The countless framing devices seem like ways to distance the film from the deeply held beliefs of its characters; they’re safety nets, but they end up serving as barriers between the audience and any kind of real emotion.