No, it’s not a fantasy for kids, but about the dragons that lurk in the dark places of the mind. And the setting of the drama has enough controversies to make the ideologues of the left and rights, the religious and the skeptical, to be suspicious and stay away. Why? Because the film discusses the founding of the “conservative” Catholic group Opus Dei, yet is openly critical of a church in Spain that has not helped the poor. And the second controversy is that it is set during the Spanish civil war, where both sides gave into hatred and murder.

Nevertheless, Ronald Joffre’s film about two young men who chose different paths during the Spanish Civil war is a compelling drama that will haunt you after leaving the theatre.

One young man is pious and becomes a priest, who decides to found a group for lay people to find sanctity in service. The other young man, Manolo, at first wants to be a priest as a good career, but later leaves and when his father is killed by strikers, vows to revenge his death. He joins the Fascists and is later sent by them to infiltrate the communists fighting for the republic.

The film goes back and forth between the two, with the priest having to eventually flee for his life. He preaches forgiveness and love, but at his lowest point, while hiding in a mental hospital, one of the patients comforts him telling him that with all the pain around him, it seems that God is a monster to those who don’t understand why there is so much suffering, but that we need to love God anyway. Later, when he flees the hospital ward, the woman has disappeared, and he realizes that she was an “angel” in the original meaning of a messanger, someone sent by God to comfort us.

He then flees from the country, and the rest of his story is not told, except that the drama is set in motion when the other man’s son goes to Spain to write an investigative report on the priest’s life.

However it is the life of the second man, Manolo, who the story revolves around. He is sent to infiltrate the communist side as a spy, and falls in love with one beautiful Hungarian volunteer who rejects his advances for another.

The woman, played by a luminous Olga Kurylenko, is the real heroine of the story, and the drama evolves around her and the revenge on her and her lover by Manolo. But his plan goes astray and she continues to reject him, saying her only wish is to join her now dead lover. She has a child, but deserts the child to return to the now hopeless fight.

Manolo is the final survivor, but is haunted not only by those comarades he betrayed and those he killed, but by his inability to forgive himself. He rescues the child, and raises him as his own, but is unable to properly give the child the love he needs.

The end of the story is how Manolo and his son learn to face the truth and forgive. At a time when so much is written about “post traumatic stress disorder” in those who lived through war, a film with the theme of forgiving oneself and others is needed.

We doctors often see how the scars of war or abuse can lead to bitterness, addiction, and destroy relationships. Too often, films from Hollywood emphasize violence and revenge instead of forgiveness and understanding, and the them of the need of forgiving one’s father is alas not one often done well in Hollywood’s films.

So should you rent the movie? Yes, but not to be entertained. Like other classics, it will haunt you and you may want to watch it a second time to pick up the nuances. It says a lot about the film that the Wikipedia article claims that the film site “Rotten Tomatoes” gave it only an 11 percent approval record by professional reviewers, but it’s audience approval rating is 77.

The drama is underplayed so that it becomes more meaningful, but a younger generation who is not aware of the horrific wounds caused by the bitter Spanish civil war might want to read a bit on that subject before watching the film.

Finally, it made me admire the priest and his work, yet one wonders if the story would have been better if instead of showing a real character, if they had substituted a fictional character for the well known but controversial Escriva. This was done in  his earlier film “The City of Joy”, where the clinics by Mother Teresa’s sisters were replaced with a lay nurse. Indeed, many of the bad reviews seem to be more about Opus Dei than about the film per se.

So if you want to watch a good action movie, forget it. But if you want a thoughtful movie on forgiveness and how the scars of war can destroy those who cannot forgive other or oneself, then you may want to view it.

I rate it a four out of five stars.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines.

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