Unless he is an exorcist or a pedophile, the chances of a priest being the main character in a Hollywood movie are sinfully scant.  Giving star treatment to a real-life priest who would become a saint, however—and presenting him truthfully—seems as improbable as Dan Brown donning sackcloth and, as penance for miscasting Opus Dei as a murderous cult protecting the hoary hoax of orthodox Christianity in The Da Vinci Code, donating his ill-gotten gains to Peter’s Pence.

Yet Hollywood miracles do occur, behind the scenes as well as on the screen.  The brilliant new movie There Be Dragons was not made as a corrective to The Da Vinci Code, yet its portrayal of St. Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei (“Work of God”), is sure to generate wholesome interest in him, the Church he served, and the movement he founded: that personal prelature of the pope (akin to a diocese without territorial borders) whose members, predominantly lay, pursue the universal vocation to holiness by striving for sanctity in everyday life.  Indeed, the movie’s marketers were happily surprised to report that random test audiences responded to unfinished versions of the film with an enthusiasm sometimes exceeding that of specifically Catholic audiences.

Although a Hollywood production, the movie premiered with much fanfare and public acclaim in the country where it is set: Spain, which is marking the 75th anniversary of the start of a civil war in which the losing side, judging by present-day Spain’s rampant irreligion (except for the near-universal worship of Lord Soccer, the new popular deity) and below-replacement birthrates, seems ultimately to have won.  The main premiere, however, occurred in the United States on May 6, five days after the beatification of the pope who canonized Saint Josemaría in 2002.

The bookends of this action-adventure romance anchored in the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) are at the beginning and end of the past century, dwelling significantly on the saint’s youth and his lifelong association with his fictional counterpoint, a troubled soul who would drag his own dragons to his deathbed—but not to the grave, thanks to his friend’s intercession.  Its plot may be fictional, but it is rooted in the life and times of the future saint who courageously defied clergy-murdering Marxists to minister clandestinely to the faithful and nurture the nascent Opus Dei in war-torn Madrid.

“It provides a true picture of St. Josemaría and a great portrayal of the priesthood,” Prof. John Coverdale, an historian and biographer of the saint who worked with him in Rome during the 1960’s and served as a consultant for Dragons, told me.  “That isn’t a small thing to say in this day and age.”

To ensure the film properly depicted priestly life, an Opus Dei priest was on set during the four months of shooting in Argentina and Spain in 2009.  It was an exhilarating experience for Fr. John Paul Wauck, a professor of literature and communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.

“A lot of the actors were surprised to have a priest around all day long,” the American priest, 47, told Chronicles.  “The movie world isn’t particularly religious, so they had lots of questions.  Some came to Mass, which I celebrated every day.  Yet the cast and crew didn’t have anything to do with Opus Dei.  It’s just a coincidence that Charlie Cox [who portrays the saint] is Catholic.  And as he’s publicly stated, playing this saint has made him take his faith more seriously.”

Last December I was invited to preview an unfinished version of Dragons.  Entering the theater with no expectations, I exited in awe of a searingly beautiful, deeply human film, superbly acted and powerfully moral—sanctifying without being sanctimonious.  It would be a joy, I thought, to interview director Roland Joffe, who also made the Academy Award-winning The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986), another movie sympathetic to priestly men of action.  After learning that the Frenchman wrote the screenplay and, incredibly, professes no religious faith himself, I felt compelled to interview him.

While shooting his latest project on location in India, Mr. Joffe took time out of his busy schedule to discuss There Be Dragons.

What motivated you to make this movie?

Roland Joffe: I was first approached about the movie by one of the producers over dinner.  It was a very nice dinner and the conversation that took place was interesting, but as I was walking home, I decided that this project was not a good match for me.

When I arrived home, I still had the materials the producer had given me about Josemaría.  I figured I didn’t need them because I had already made my decision.  However, as I sat down at my computer to write the producer a note thanking him for dinner and politely declining the offer, something prompted me to pop in a DVD the producer gave me into the player.

The DVD was of Josemaría speaking to a group of people.  It was the first time I actually saw him.  He seemed like an average guy you might meet on the street . . . yet at the same time you could tell right away he was a man of great conviction.

There was a scene in particular that really caught my attention.  It made Josemaría stand out to me as someone who was indeed different.  A young girl in the back of his audience raised her hand and said, “Excuse me, Father, but I have a question.  I would like to convert, but my parents are Jewish, and they would be very upset.”

Now here is what really got me.  Josemaría replied without a hesitation, “Oh no, my dear, my dear, honoring your parents is very important to the Lord.  He doesn’t want you to do anything that would upset your parents.  If He is in your heart, He is in your heart.  Welcome Him there.”

I was floored by the love and respect he gave to the girl’s parents and to the girl.  His sensitivity and understanding of the girl’s situation was so moving to me that I actually began writing a scene.  When I was finished, I realized how much I wanted to see the scene played out on screen.  And the only way to make sure that would happen was to accept the producer’s offer for the project.  That’s when my letter of rejection turned into a letter of acceptance—on the condition that I was given artistic freedom.  They agreed.

Did the financial backing of Catholics, some of whom are associated with Opus Dei, in any way influence the making of the film—aside from making it possible, that is?

The financing of this film did not come from one source but from a variety of professional and individual investors [approximately 100, raising some $40 million].  And, yes, some of them were Catholic, and some of them were Opus Dei Catholic, but they certainly all weren’t Catholic or even Christian.

That being said, I was given the artistic freedom to write the screenplay independently of anyone’s critiquing.  I chose what direction I wanted the film to go in, what I wanted the characters to say, and how I wanted them to interact.

Of course, I had the traditional constraints of moviemaking to deal with—like staying in budget—but otherwise I had the freedom to create the movie from start to finish the way I saw fit.  That is part of what made this such a satisfying project: I really got to see my vision played out.

Given your sensitive treatment of a Catholic saint, readers would be interested to know about your own religious faith.

Before and after the film I considered myself agnostic, but I have always respected, and been intrigued by, religion.

I am not sure I fully realized what a saint was before I learned about his life.  I suppose I hadn’t really considered the journey to sainthood as much as the status of sainthood.  I did not view the status as one to be obtained by a “normal” man.  But this is what drew me to Josemaría in the first place: his “normalness.”

I am not sure if my treatment of him was exactly sensitive.  I think I might more consider it honest.  When I dove into the life of Josemaría I found a man I could relate to and I could respect.  I felt as though if I just showed the audience what I saw, they could make up their own mind about him.

A biographer of Saint Josemaría, Peter Berglar, wrote, “The underlying spirit of Opus Dei encourages men and women to live the liberating truth . . . that any upright human task done well may become a divine occupation.  ‘Sanctity,’ [wrote] Opus Dei’s founder, ‘for the vast majority of men and women, implies sanctifying their work, sanctifying themselves in it, and sanctifying others through it.  Thus they can encounter God in the course of their daily lives.’”  Your thoughts about this passage, please.

Josemaría had a way of living that really resonated with me—his belief that all work could be sanctifying work.  He strove to turn the daily routines of life into something holy . . . merging together his humanity and his spirituality and not keeping them separate like they often are.  He believed strongly that sanctity existed not only in churches and traditionally religious ways, but he saw great sanctity in daily living.

I think this is very wise.  I think there is a danger of living a divided life—when one separates the daily acts of living from what one does on Sunday.  I think Josemaría’s life emulated a life that was not divided [but] lived in a very conscientious way.  He was fascinating to me.

Art should not be didactic, at least in its usual pejorative sense, but always should be moral.  Do you agree?

I think that art can teach us a great many things, and film in particular gives us a unique medium for expressing human creativity and asking the very natural questions of Who are we?  Why are we here?  What is our purpose?

That is why I am frequently confused by the insistence on making movies that reduce the person to simple entertainment.  Movies should not portray their characters merely as sex objects, killing machines, and comedic muses, but instead should be creating characters with depth.

I see these movies as a missed opportunity to dive further into the complexity of human existence.  The movies I find thrilling unabashedly provoke questions and challenge the human spirit to go further and search harder for answers.

How does There Be Dragons conform to this cinematic conception?

My goal was not to make a movie that was moralizing or preachy, and I don’t think I did.  I think instead—like Josemaría’s life did—the film invokes in the audiences their own moral compasses and causes them to grapple with questions being raised by the characters’ experiences.  My hope was not to teach but to ignite conversations and discussions that spill over into the audiences’ own personal reflection.

There Be Dragons does not provide answers.  It allows the audience to be affected by the characters, their experiences, their emotions, and their relationships.  It also allows the audience to see the consequences and triumphs of their decisions, large and small.

I hope that viewers are able to translate the struggles and triumphs of these ordinary people into their own “dragons”—to look at their own sufferings, their shortcomings, and their temptations.  I hope they start to see how, in their own lives and the lives of those around them, there is the need for forgiveness.

In the movie, the Josemaría character responds to ideological fervor with common sense.  To cries for revolution, he reminds people that, “Before rushing to change the world, we must change ourselves.”  In response to the flippant saying “To make an omelet, you must break eggs,” he replies, “Life is not an omelet, and people are not eggs.”

If I watched your film as a reasonable man of good will but no religious faith in particular, the force of such statements—and the lessons derived from the behavior of the characters, for good or ill—would be impressive because they convey truths discernible through mere reason, unaided by religious revelation.  Is this broad appeal what you wish your movie to achieve?  An appeal based on universally recognized truths about right and wrong actions?

I consider myself an agnostic, and yet I saw the truth in Jose­maría the first time I saw him speak.  There Be Dragons deals with the lives of human beings.  He was a real person, and though characters around him in the movie may be fictional, they are realistic.

The characters experience real human emotion and make choices similar to the ones that we all have to make.  There are no “answers” given by the characters in the movie.  There is simply the life they share with the audience.  It is the audience that has to decide the authenticity of each life and the meaning of each choice.

The movie portrays characters on both sides of the Spanish Civil War with the sympathy due people who sincerely hold beliefs, however wrong the beliefs and complex the motives.  This makes the movie all the more compelling in general, but perhaps it has a special appeal for Spanish viewers marking the 75th anniversary of the start of their civil war.

In times of great pressure and stress in a country, it is hard to distinguish truth.  At the time of the Spanish Civil War, Spaniards were suffering.  People were being manipulated by fear and desperation.

The Spanish Civil War was not about geographical boundaries.  It was a line drawn in the sand over political ideology.  This pitted neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother, father against son.  In Spain their civil war is still very real.  Spain is still divided, with no clear victory.

But in the muck of gray, there was Josemaría.  He did not side with either political party.  He did what others, even within his own Church, found impossible: He acted and based his life on faith-filled truth.

As the movie shows, slaying one’s own dragons is never easy.  Did making this film help you slay any dragons?

I guess what comes to mind first is that this film made me look at my faith in a way I never have before [through] learning about Josemaría’s life and how purposeful it was.  It made me question my own convictions, and I realized that I hadn’t thought of many of them very deeply.  Josemaría knew why he was Catholic.  He knew the teachings of his Church.  He tried to live his life as an example of them no matter what was happening around him.

There Be Dragons is a challenging movie because Jose­maría led a challenging life.  This movie stirred in me a desire to know and understand my own convictions better.  I hope that for others it stirs the same sense of longing to know more and to be more.