Oscar-nominated film director Roland Joffe describes himself as a “wobbly agnostic.” “There’s easy atheism, there’s easy agnosticism, and there’s easy faith,” he explained during a Sept. 9 phone interview with The Southern Cross. “Because I have a curious mind, I’ve never been able to take … a totally easy path.”
Still, Joffe admits that he finds “immense beauty” and “immense truths” in religion. He also sees no conflict between his agnosticism and his latest film project, “There Be Dragons.”
The film is based on the life of St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, a Spanish priest who founded the lay Catholic movement known as Opus Dei. The film will be released in theaters in Spring 2011.
“Just because I’m agnostic, I would be a fool if I dismissed somebody because he was a saint,” Joffe said. He added that he actually finds himself steered in the opposite direction, convinced that “things of great interest to every human being” are bound to be discovered in the life of “a hero of the Church.”
Written and directed by Joffe, “There Be Dragons” is not the first time the British filmmaker has explored religious territory. His 1986 directorial effort, “The Mission,” starred Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons as Jesuits in 18th-century Latin America.
Nine years after its release, “The Mission” was included in a Vatican-compiled list of 45 “great films.” The film also won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival and earned Joffe his second Academy Award nomination for best director. He had previously been nominated two years earlier for 1984’s “The Killing Fields.”
Joffe’s latest film, “There Be Dragons,” is set during the Spanish Civil War of the mid- to late 1930s, a period the director describes as “the seminal moment in Josemaria’s life.” Joffe said the film expresses the Spanish saint’s deeply held belief that God can be found in everyday life – even during a civil war – and that everyone can be a saint.
“There Be Dragons” is not intended to be the cinematic equivalent of a “poster” or “user’s manual” for Opus Dei, Joffe said. But viewers also should not expect a retread of the lurid conspiracy theories propagated by “The Da Vinci Code” and its film adaptation.
“I think Dan Brown (the author of “The Da Vinci Code”) misused Opus Dei … in a rather unpardonable way,” Joffe said. “I hope, in some ways, this movie will set the balance straight, but that’s not the objective of the movie. I just think it’s maybe a byproduct.”
While “There Be Dragons” would seem to have built-in appeal for Catholic viewers, Joffe believes that it will speak to a much larger audience, including those who do not believe in God or subscribe to any particular faith. He revealed that an atheist character, who figures prominently in the film, is shown to experience “a profoundly religious moment.”
“I think there’s going to be much to find, because there’s all of life expressed in this movie,” Joffe said. “I think Catholics and other religious people, and agnostics and atheists alike will find the human experience there, very clearly and rather beautifully expressed by the actors.”
Printed with permission from the Southern Cross, newspaper for the Diocese of San Diego.