Opus Dei Unleash the Dragons

The Olive Press
September 30, 2009

IT will feature some of the cream of British cinema and is expected to be one of the big Hollywood blockbusters for next year.

But the film There be Dragons – directed by Roland Joffe and starring Charlie Cox, Charles Dance and Derek Jacobi – is extremely unlikely to be popular in Spain.

Based on the shady Catholic organisation Opus Dei, it tells the story of its founder Spaniard Josemaria Escriva, who was a close friend of former dictator Francisco Franco, as well as South American pariah Augusto Pinochet.

It has already been accused of being a 20 million euro propaganda vehicle for the secretive organisation, which has close links to the Vatican, as well as strong support in Spain.

It has also emerged that the film has received funding from Opus Dei members in a bid to counter its portrayal as a group of self-flagellating schemers as seen in 2006 blockbuster The Da Vinci Code.

Joffe, who directed the Mission and the Killing Fields, recently confimed that the film – set for release in 2010 – has received substantial financial backing by Opus Dei member, the independent Hollywood film producer Heriberto Schoeffer.

Consulting at least one Opus Dei priest during its 13-week shoot in Argentina, it is said to heavily promote the organisation, which is allegedly behind numerous big, controversial infrastructure projects in Spain.

One former member of the organisation, who lives in Argentina, explained that the film is “dark Dei propaganda”.

So right-wing was the script, that it was initially rejected by Hugh Hudson, the director of Chariots of Fire, as he deemed it to be too “pro-Franco”.

Dictator Franco was a supporter of both Hitler and Mussolini during the Second World War and his regime was linked to the deaths of an estimated 200,000 Spaniards during his 40 year regime.

Yet director Joffe has vehemently maintained that his film is not a propaganda tool for the organisation. He says he was given complete creative control before filming began and that it is not pro-Franco.

However, the controversial film depicts the life of Spaniard Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer during the turbulent Spanish Civil War.

Amid claims of corruption and scandal – compounded by Dan Brown’s notorious bestseller, The Da Vinci Code – Opus Dei and Escriva are both still shrouded in mystery.

The facts about Escriva’s life are thin on the ground. Born in the historic Aragonese town of Barbastro in 1902, he was ordained a priest in 1925, before going on to study Law at Madrid University.

He was the second of six brothers, three of whom died young, and his father was a failed businessman, who later was declared bankrupt. He dealt in fabrics and chocolate and died when Escriva was just 22 years old.

One has to journey back almost 81 years to discover how one moment of enlightenment was the catalyst behind one of the world’s most influential religious movements.

It was on October 2, 1928 in Madrid, Escriva had just begun his routine prayer ritual when he saw God’s work laid out before him. His vision consisted of two latin words; Opus Dei, meaning “work of God”.

He suddenly believed that people could achieve holiness – and even sainthood – if they stuck to a strict regime of religious practices.

This involved allegedly wearing a cilice, or undergarment, made from rough cloth or animal hair or even barbed wire.

Sometimes known as a “hair shirt”, this contraption pricks into the wearer’s skin, constantly reminding them of the importance of repentance and atonement.

According to Wikipedia, if worn continuously it could form a breeding ground for lice.

Incredibly it has been endorsed by Popes as a way of following in Christ’s footsteps after his crucifixion. “Let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me,” Jesus once said.

So sure was he of this route to sainthood, that he set about, like the missionaries in Africa, to convert anyone in Spain prepared to listen.

Escriva devoted the rest of his life’s work to preaching these methods – a fact that was recognised by Pope John Paul II when he canonised Escriva in 2002.

Insisting that he gave to this mission entirely, he stated: “He worked especially among the poor and the sick languishing in the slums and hospitals of Madrid.”

However, in 1936, Escriva, played by London actor Charlie Cox in Joffe’s film, was forced to flee Spain after Republican forces targeted him.

He made a dramatic escape across the Pyrenees – the inspiration behind the forthcoming movie – but returned three years later aftern Franco had established his dictatorship.

And it was during the Caudillo’s reign that Opus Dei flourished and spread throughout Spain.

By 1945, the organisation was getting international recognition as well as suspicious glances from other religious groups.

Accusations over Escriva’s support for fascist regimes plagued his legacy. One early critic was leading Jesuit, Wlodimir Ledochowski, who told the Vatican that he considered Opus Dei to be “very dangerous for the Church in Spain”.

He cited its “secretive character” and called it “a form of Christian masonry”.

Yet the growth of Opus Dei continued unaffected and, by 1946, Escriva made the bold decision to move the organisation’s headquarters from Madrid to Rome.

Just four years later, Opus Dei’s meteoric rise in religious clout was officially recognised by the Vatican when Rome granted its recognition as an “institution of pontifical right”.

By the time of his death on June 26 1975, Escriva, 73, had succeeded in creating and nurturing a hugely influential religious group that consisted of 60,000 members from five different continents.

Nevertheless, accusations surrounding Escriva’s support for fascist regimes continued to plague his legacy.

In his later years, it is alleged that Escriva became extremely close to the torturous regime of General Pinochet’s Junta in Chile during the height of its dictatorial power.

And, while being considered for sainthood, an Opus Dei priest revealed Escriva once told him: “Hitler couldn’t have been such a bad person. He couldn’t have killed six million people – four million at the most.”

Opus Dei has since fought back against the accusations that it is just a secret society for religious fundamentalists and right-wing extremists.

It has pointed out that, while many of its members are conservative, there is still a handful of liberals, including the Italian Democratic party senator Paola Binetti, who famously admitted she occasionally wore a cilice.

In the UK, former Labour cabinet minister Ruth Kelly is reported to be a member, while in Spain various bullfighters and athletes are members, as well as former president Adolfo Suarez.

In Spain the organisation is divided into ten regional delegations, each controlled by their own boss. Overall control for Spain is in the hands of Ramon Herrando Prat de la Riba.

Joffe’s film concentrates mostly on Escriva’s early years during the 1930s and, in particular his “Indiana Jones” style escape from Spain with the Republicans in hot pursuit.

The cast for There Be Dragons is clearly impressive. As well as the British talent, it also includes Ukranian Bond girl Olga Kurylenko as the love interest.

The only problem is few Spaniards are likely to love it.


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