For most people, the Spanish Civil War is ancient history and the rare soul who bothers to look into it finds a kind of pre-Cold War throwback, (allegedly) pitting faith and fascism on the one hand, against unbelief and communism on the other. Furthermore, partisanship led to some truly awful artistic and historical accounts of the struggle, even leaving aside the Communist propaganda.
Ernest Hemingway, always an uneven writer, produced some of his worst pages in For Whom the Bell Tolls, set in Spain during the war (the movie version only partly saved by Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergmann). George Orwell, a usually honest man, only gets things about half right in Homage to Catalonia. But at least he reported (truthfully) that, in England, whole schools of thought about Spain arose on the basis of journalistic accounts of events that, he knew for a fact, had never happened. Though there have been some correctives in recent years, the real story seems doomed to partisan misrepresentation forever.
Anyone even vaguely familiar with this cultural history, therefore, has to approach the new film about the early life of St. José Maria Escrivá, There Be Dragons, with caution. (The filmmakers cover themselves with the usefully elastic explanation that the film is “based on” actual events.) Despite manifold ways to go wrong, on the whole, it goes right, though with significant weaknesses.
The trouble with There Be Dragons revolves around two problems facing many works of art: the difficulty of portraying holiness with plausibility; and the perhaps even more difficult question of how to treat the competing demands of justice and reconciliation after events like the Spanish Civil War. Dragons negotiates both, to a fair degree, not least because it works its way toward one of the few believable movie conclusions involving Christian forgiveness.
Let no one doubt the need for reconciliation. Spain has had plenty of problems over the years, not least its inability to modernize until fairly recently. Yet the Black Legend that English speakers have been taught since the Spanish Armada has obscured some important truths. In English-speaking countries, Spanish Catholicism is often portrayed as corrupt, tied to an exploitative upper class, and led by a hierarchy that was more concerned about social privileges than preaching the Gospel. Only an ideologue would deny that there’s evidence of all this and more. Dragons sometimes bends over backward to concede that the Republican revolutionaries had a point in their anger against the Church.
In secular circles, that’s much exaggerated and taken for granted, but here’s a lesser-known side of the story. Some of the Spanish hierarchy may have been corrupt, but none of them abandoned their posts when the violence hit. Every bishop in Republican territory was killed, except two, who happened to be outside the country. In Madrid-Alcalá, 1,118 priests died; 279 in Barcelona; 327 in Valencia, between a quarter and a third of priests in just those cities.
This in addition to the slaughter of whole convents, cloisters, seminaries, religious houses containing people who, of course, had done nothing wrong. When John Paul II asked dioceses around the world to report on people martyred in the twentieth century in preparation for the third Christian millennium, about half the files—6,000 or so—sent to the Commission on New Martyrs were from Spain. Some have claimed Spanish priests were crucified, though there is no solid evidence.
We do know that Christians were, for the first time since the ancient Roman spectacles, thrown to wild animals, this time bulls in the corrida. And priests, in a macabre variation on bullfighting custom, had their ears cut off for trophies after being killed in the ring. The British historian Hugh Thomas, a fair judge, said of Spain, “At no time in the history of Europe, or even perhaps of the world, has so passionate a hatred of religion and all its works been shown.”
Dragons largely plays this history down (perhaps too much so given how little known it is) because it seeks to show something quite different: real reconciliation. It may seem that it’s a bit late in the day for that except in abstract terms. But when Muslim terrorists set off bombs during rush hour on commuter trains in Madrid right before the 2004 general elections (191 dead, 1,800 wounded), the “two Spains” were still very much alive.
Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s religion-friendly government was rejected in favor of a Socialist government among the most radical and anti-religious in Europe (When Pope Benedict XVI visited Spain last year, Prime Minister Zapatero arranged to be out of the country and later publicly inflamed historic divisions by asking whether the people wanted “a pope or a parliament”—as if these were mutually exclusive options).
In a way, of course, public reconciliation is always needed in every country, but—as Spain shows as the most extreme case—especially in Western, formerly Christian nations, we face heated clashes between believers of a fairly traditional kind and a militant band of secularists. Fortunately, in most countries, it hasn’t come to civil war. Not yet.
One element that emerges convincingly from the film is how much public reconciliation depends on private forgiveness. There’s been a whole spate of forgiveness studies in recent years in psychological circles, arguing the benefits of forgiving, letting go, and moving on. Perhaps so, but, as we know, most real forgiveness depends on knowing you have things yourself to be forgiven for, and that emerges most forcefully in religious, not secular, contexts.
Contrary to what most people believe, Opus Dei—the religious institution founded by St. José Maria—at least in my limited experience, is very cautious in comments about the Spanish Civil War. Members tend to shy away from identifying with the pro-Church Nationalists tout court, perhaps because they know they would be tarred with a Fascist brush.
But it’s a hard line to walk. The Republicans hanged José Maria in front of his mother’s house—or thought they did, having picked up a guy who had the misfortune of looking like the future saint, an episode not in the film. And they drove him—as the film shows—as a young man with a group of his early followers out of Spain over the Pyrenees into Andorra, then France, from which he returned to Pamplona, a safe haven because controlled by Franco’s forces.
The title There Be Dragons is drawn from the old maps of the world that suggested there were monsters in distant, as yet unexplored regions. The film applies the phrase to the dragons within every person, of whatever political stripe or religious persuasion. It “works” in the end because the youthful figure of the saint seems really to have deeply embraced the truth that the Church must be the Church of all the people and a source of reconciliation, especially where the divisions run deep among people related to one another. As a religious argument, it is consummate sense. In political terms, the picture is much cloudier and it is perhaps not by chance that Manolo, the old Republican opportunist, who is a kind of foil to José Maria in Dragons, only finds forgiveness and peace for his misdeeds decades later—on his deathbed.
Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of, among other books, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century.