Bernardo M. Villegas
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The Redeeming Value of Forgiveness

             Movie goers of the sixties and seventies of the last century were captivated by the big-screen, spectacular photography of the late director David Lean.  My own generation relished such blockbusters as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago and Passage to India, which were all directed by David Lean who passed away in 1991.  Then, in the same tradition of epic films followed the movies directed by two-time Academy Award-nominee Roland Joffe:  The Mission, The Killing Fields, and City of Joy.  There was, however, a major value added that Joffe contributed to the big screen.  In all his successful films, there was always a big dosage of symbolism capturing the ever continuing human struggle to overcome evil with heroic acts of virtue.

          The newest film of Joffe is "There Be Dragons", an epic tale of revolutionaries and saints in a time of a most bloody civil war in which half  a  million people, perhaps more, were killed in a fraticidal  war lasting almost four years.  It is also a story of love and heroism amidst jealousy, hatred and violence, and a very powerful drama of the power of forgiveness to break the enslaving chains of past sins.  As described in a movie guide published in the website  www.josemariaescriva.info,  "There Be Dragons"  tells the story of London-based investigative journalist Robert Torres, who visits Spain to research a book about Josemaria Escriva and discovered to his great surprise that his estranged father, Manolo, would turn out to be his most promising but least cooperative source. The truth slowly unravels when Robert begins to unearth his father's toxic secrets.  He learns that Manolo was not only born in the same Spanish town in Northern Spain as Josemaria, but that they were childhood friends and attended the same seminary.   The two men took radically different paths in life, with Josemaria dedicating his life to serve God in founding Opus Dei, a way of sanctification in daily work and in the fulfillment of the ordinary duties of a Christian, while Manolo gets caught in the whirlwind of the brutal and tumultuous Spanish civil war. 

          As Robert continues to unearth the intricacies of Josemaria's life and Manolo's mysterious anger and coldness as a father, their overlapping journeys are revealed with the truths and sorrows of their past choices.  The ghosts, the "dragons" in Manolo's life are finally exorcised with one last opportunity of forgiveness.  Intertwined with other strong spiritual messages, the main theme of the movie is the redeeming value of forgiveness, more for the benefit of the one forgiving than for the one forgiven.  Joffe, who describes himself as a "wobbly agnostic", was convinced to take on the assignment of directing the movie by the outstanding example of a forgiving spirit that he saw in St. Josemaria who always preached that "Love more than in giving is in understanding."

          The first time Joffe was offered a script about the life of Josemaria Escriva, he showed no interest.  What changed his mind was a DVD of the founder of Opus Dei in which a Jewish girl had consulted St. Josemaria in a public gathering with thousands in the audience about her wish to convert to Christianity.  Her problem was that her parents were opposed to her conversion.  Escriva replied that the greatest love of his life was Jewish and that God valued and honored her parents.  Joffe, the adopted son of the Jewish British sculptor Jacob Epstein, was amazed at the humanity of that reply.  As he later said:  "St. Josemaria put himself in her place and he put himself in her parents' place; and he understood the full humanity of the position she was in.  He recognized this was a life dilemma that will involve, as love does, a sacrifice on somebody's behalf, but that sacrifice can only be chosen.  God does not ask that people come to Him treading on others."

          Impressed by the openness of St. Josemaria to the human and spiritual needs of others, Joffe agreed to direct a film on the Saint, but on the condition that he would write his own script.  After many months of research--reading everything available about St. Josemaria and the Spanish civil war, as well as talking to people who had known him--he sat down to pen an epic drama in which Josemaria was one of a number of significant characters faced with profound choices in situations of extreme stress.  Joffe was most interested in the effect of holiness in a time of war.   What he read about St. Josemaria's exemplary behaviour during the civil war did not disappoint him.

          "There Be Dragons"--that will be showing in Philippine theaters during the month of November--offers a very timely message in today's world still torn with numerous civil strifes especially in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.  The movie's title comes from original Latin words which were found on medieval maps indicating unexplored territory.  Hic sunt dracones refers to the experiences in life which cause people to suffer and to react in varying ways.   According to Joffe, only by acknowledging and dealing with those "dragons," can we avoid the cycle of vengeance and dehumanisation which so marked the twentieth century and continue to today's world.  Joffe captures well the deeply Christian example given by St. Josemaria to the people around him, especially during the Spanish civil war: " I think that's what Josemaria was teaching, again and again, to people going through anguishing experiences to connect to the humanity not only of those who are suffering but also to those who are causing them to suffer."  Every Christian must be heroic enough to imitate the dying Christ when he uttered these words:  "Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing."  The first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, echoed exactly the same words.    For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia