If movies could be judged by good intentions alone, then Roland Joffé's

There Be Dragons

, a sweeping historical drama about war, Christian ethics, the nature of forgiveness, and sainthood, would be a masterpiece.

Sadly, it's not. Far from it.

There Be Dragons marks a return of sorts to Joffé's early career and his celebrated films about religion and the morality of war - The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986). It chronicles the life of St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer (1902-1975), focusing primarily on his childhood and his work as a priest during the Spanish Civil War.

Escrivá (played here by Charlie Cox) is best known for founding Opus Dei, a lay Catholic group that teaches that God can be glorified not only in church, but also through our most mundane daily activities.

Opus Dei has been dogged by controversy. Dan Brown's best-seller The Da Vinci Code depicts it as a secretive, conspiratorial clique. Even though Dragons was partially funded by two Opus Dei members, Joffé stays clear of this pitched battle, focusing instead on Escrivá's spiritual life.

The film opens in contemporary Spain, where a Spanish-born British writer named Robert Torres (a lackluster Dougray Scott) is doing research for a biography he has been assigned to write about Escrivá. In a preposterous turn of events, Robert discovers that his estranged father, Manolo (a cocky and even Wes Bentley), who is lying on his deathbed, was Escrivá's best friend in grade school!

Manolo disinherited Robert years ago, but for some reason, he decides to tell him - via a tape recorder - the sordid story of his own violent, hate-filled past and its rather tenuous connection to Escrivá's life.

Joffé sets up a spiritual conflict between the two pals: Manolo assumes control of his father's business empire, ending up as a cruel materialist and fascist, while Escrivá remains an eternal optimist and inspired pastoral leader.

Joffé is on familiar ground: The Mission sets a devout missionary (Jeremy Irons) against a slave-trader (Robert De Niro). The earlier film worked because its more ethereal themes are built on a solid story. There Be Dragons fails entirely: It's a jumble of disconnected set pieces, fragmented subplots, and facile dialogue.

Joffé is out of depth when it comes to Escrivá's religious experiences. It's clear he wants the film to show how faith works within us, but he does it by resorting to the most hackneyed imagery.

It's embarrassing to watch an otherwise gifted filmmaker churn out such drivel.

There Be Dragons *½ (out of four stars)

Directed by Roland Joffé. With Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Dougray Scott, and Olga Kurylenko. Distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Running time: 2 hours.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, sexuality, some profanity, mature themes, fascism)

Playing at: area theatersEndText