HomeTestimoniesRoland Joffe, film director

Roland Joffe, film director

“This story forced me to think as much as I ever have in my life.”

March 25, 2011

Tags: Opus Dei, There be Dragons
The director of There Be Dragons introduced his film in Rome on March 21*, comparing St Josemaria to President Mandela in their shared love for freedom and forgiveness. The director admitted, “This story forced me to think as much as I ever have in my life.”

To be asked to tackle a subject as complex, as rich and so deeply profound as the life of a saint is a humbling experience, and I sat for a long time wondering how one tackled this story – how do you tell the story of a saint? And an important thought struck me – that I should not be concentrating on the saint; that’s not what the saint would want, because after all one of the great attributes of saintliness is giving to others; it occurred to me that no saint would be saying, “make a film about me”. But he might be saying, “make a film about what I thought; about what I loved; about what drove me.” And those seemed to me truths and when I had those truths a shape for the story began to emerge and one that I felt would honour Josemaria Escrivá.

And the second thing that struck me was that if you look at the history of the Church as well as human history it seems that each age asks a different question. I suppose you could say that the divine poses itself in a different form for each generation. So in some senses I had to ask myself, “what kind of question was God asking Josemaria?” Asking in the sense: “what historical time did Josemaria find himself a part of?” Because one could easily say that the dialogue exists between one’s inner life and one’s social life. And then the answer came to me in a very simple way, but in a way I thought that honoured what Josemaria seemed to be about.

We can look at the twentieth century and see it in some ways as the history of mechanisation, of industrialisation; when we think of what we think of machines – cars, washing machines, and so on. But there was another industrialisation, perhaps a much darker industrialisation, and that was the industrialisation of politics. That was the sense that politics was going to require of people the same kind of thing that Henry Ford required of his cars, be black and the same, or white or the same; you were no longer a creative part of your environment; you were part of something, and had a job to do; and not only that but the requirement was that you perform an industrial role in an industrial politics, and if you couldn’t do that there was something wrong with you. What a terrible trap that led us into, didn’t it?

And when we look at what that did, the number of deaths that caused, the despair that created in terms of human beings, Josemaria begins to emerge in rather a remarkable way. Particularly in Spain. I couldn’t think of anything worse than a family fight, and a fratricidal civil war is probably the worst of all kinds of war because so much human experience is packed into it. And at this time, it struck me, a young man had the strength to stand up and say: think for yourselves. In fact, it’s a requirement of Christianity to think for yourself, it teaches you to have free will, and how can you have free will if you don’t think for yourself? But more than thinking for yourself, it’s thoughts that are born in love. And what Josemaria had the courage to do was stand up and say, “you are required to love” – even those who take an opposite political stance to you, and even if they’re wrong, and their wrongness to you is shocking, you are not freed from the obligation to love. And I thought that was an extremely powerful thing: Josemaria answered the question that his time gave him, which is that when politics was industrialising and the world was splitting into rigid opposing camps, a young priest stood up in Spain and refused to condemn.

And finally, he preached that great and divine message, the message of forgiveness. And that shines forth, doesn’t it, because without forgiveness where do we go? Isn’t that a saintly act? And when I think of the ways that Josemaria extended what I would call the warm embrace of the Church to people who weren’t Christian as well, that was an extraordinary thing he was capable of doing: that God was not only interested in listening to believers. We are all in this world together. That was an extraordinary thing to do, and the power of that message I think is extraordinary and relevant to us.

It seemed to me that it would be wonderful to make a movie that said: as we emerged in the twenty-first century would it not be a wonderful thing if this were the century of reconciliation? And that in years to come, when we look back at this period, we think, yes, that was the time the world shifted, and we moved away from that rigid industrialisation of thought that the world suffered, and we began once again to discover our innate humanity that exists in all of us; and those ancient wounds that have lasted for 60, 70 or 80 years have been healed? It’s wonderful that President Mandela was capable of doing that in South Africa, and it’s wonderful to me that Josemaria Escrivá as a young man fought for the importance of that, and carried the Christian message in such a remarkable way that I, being who am, I confess, a rather wishy-washy agnostic, found myself standing in total admiration and driven to want to do my best for this movie.

There are many things that happen in this story. I sincerely hope I have served it well. It’s been an honour for me to work on this project, and while I am a very ordinary human being not capable of a large amount of thinking, I do think that working with this story forced me to think as much as I ever have in my life, and what I came up with is what you’re going to see in the movie. Thank you very much.

*The film was strongly applauded at the end, and reactions were enthusiastic. Before the showing, Roland Joffe, director of There Be Dragons, introduced the film after being introduced by producer Ignacio Gomez-Sancha at the North-American College.