05/09/2011 10:37 am ET Updated Jul 09, 2011

How Do You Solve A Problem Like St. Josemaria?

For most filmgoers, the words "Opus Dei" typically conjure up images of self-flagellating, hair-shirt clad fanatics slinking through the darkened streets of Paris on a mission to keep the supposed burial place of Mary Magdalene a secret.

And for that you can thank Dan Brown and "The Da Vinci Code."

Brown's blockbuster novel and film cast Opus Dei as villainous, clandestine, powerful and nefarious. Its followers are portrayed as mindless disciples, the keepers of secrets and corrupt manipulators of history.

So when Oscar-nominated director Roland Joffe ("The Mission") set out to make a film about Opus Dei founder St. Josemaria Escriva, his first task was to craft a historically accurate yet accessible film that wouldn't repel audiences.

His film, "There Be Dragons," is an epic period piece set during the Spanish Civil War that tells part of Escriva's back story. But instead of focusing on the would-be saint, the film casts him in a supporting role.

Rather than a pious biopic of a somewhat obscure religious figure, Joffe's film is much more of a psycho-spiritual study of relationships between fathers and sons -- both human and divine.

If Joffe painted a picture of Escriva that focused too much on his piety, the authenticity of his humanity could be lost. Yet if Escriva were depicted as perhaps "too" human, it might have been dismissed as yet another Da Vinci-esque assault on Catholicism.

The film's title is derived from an old Latin expression, Hic sunt dragones or "Here be dragons" -- once commonly used by cartographers to indicate unexplored locations on maps.

Joffe, a self-described "wobbly agnostic," sailed into uncharted territory when he set about making a movie that's as much about sinners as it is about saints.

In Joffe's at times uneasy cinematic marriage of a historical epic and an intimate character study, the audience does come away with a message. But it's about human frailty and divine grace, not piety or religious zeal.

The film's protagonist is the antihero Manolo Torres, a fictitious childhood friend of Escriva, whose story is woven with Escriva's throughout their lives. The two start out more or less on even ground as children in pre-war Spain.

Escriva's father, a tender and pious man, owns a chocolate factory before losing his business and going bankrupt. The family clings to a simple faith through the death of several children and the bankruptcy of his business. The first mass Escriva celebrates as a priest is for his father's funeral.

Torres' father also owns a factory, albeit a far more successful one, and is a far less gracious soul than the elder Escriva. The elder Torres is judgmental, violent and given to fits of rage. While Escriva's father serves God and family, Torres' father worships mammon and considers his workers to be "scum."

"My dad had more money, more cars, more houses, but Josemaria had more dad," Manolo Torres says in a voiceover early on in the film. "A seed of envy began to grow in me. In a child's heart many seeds are planted. You never know quite what will grow."

Both young men end up in the Catholic seminary -- a short-lived career move for Torres, but a holy vocation for Escriva. That's where their paths diverge, only to be brought together time and again by the unfolding of history.

Neither Torres nor Escriva is depicted as fully saint or sinner. Escriva, in particular, is portrayed as a man whose heart belonged to God but whose feet were firmly planted on earth. He possesses an immovable faith and steady moral compass. He also has a temper, a great sense of humor, and ample joie de vivre.

Today Opus Dei (Latin for "work of God") has some 90,000 members worldwide -- most of them lay people -- who have embraced Escriva's notion that everyone has the potential to be used by God for good, and that everything can be a vessel for the holy.

"Jesus spent most of his life working in a shop in Nazareth," he says in the film. "God's world is so full of goodness. If we do them for love, each daily task can give him glory."

Joffe originally turned down the film, but changed his mind after watching a video where a young Jewish girl told Escriva that her desire to become a Catholic was causing problems with her parents.

Instead of encouraging her conversion, Escriva advised the girl to honor her parents and told her not to convert. Joffe says he found the incident so impressively "open-minded" that he agreed to direct the film.

The emotional energy that propels the film comes from Torres and his relationship with his son, Richard, and his mother, Ildiko. In the film, Richard is working on a book about the late Escriva well before he was declared a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002.

In "There Be Dragons" it is the tormented, complicated Torres, not Escriva, who is the keeper of monumental secrets. His sins as a young man -- and they are both legion and epic -- lead to a life of isolation and desperation.

How his story ends is a testament to the power of redemption.Because, as the film reminds the audience, "every saint has a past and every sinner has a future."

A version of this column originally appeared via Religion News Service.

Cathleen Falsani is author of the book The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers and the forthcoming Belieber!: Fame, Faith & the Heart of Justin Bieber.