First the bad news, for adolescent viewers, anyway: there don't be any dragons. Not the leathery-winged kind, at least. The title refers to a medieval map-making custom of inscribing the warning "Hic Sunt Dracones" on unexplored regions. In this case the warning refers to the unexplored regions of the psyche, where destructive emotions may lurk.
The film shows us the early life of Josemaria Escriva (1902-1975), recently canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church and best known as the founder of the organization Opus Dei. Escriva had an original, yet simple, idea: that a Christian can follow the path of holiness while living and working in the secular world. Of course, Christians have been shunning the world to live a life of radical dedication to Christ ever since St. Anthony of the desert. But, Escriva reasoned, Christ himself spent many years working in a carpenter's shop, while living in a village alongside ordinary people. Why can't Christians do the same?
The idea sounds benign enough, but some view Opus Dei with suspicion. The last time it showed up in a major motion picture was in The Da Vinci Code (2006), represented by an albino monk and murderer. Opus Dei members adhere to traditional Christian beliefs, and are suspected of (according to Wikipedia) "alleged secretiveness, its recruiting methods, the alleged strict rules governing members, the practice by celibate members of mortification of the flesh, its alleged elitism and misogyny, the alleged right-leaning politics of most of its members, and the alleged participation by some in authoritarian or extreme right-wing governments, especially the Francoist Government of Spain."
But if you're assuming the dragons in this film relate to Escriva's dark side, you'd be surprised. There Be Dragons presents Escriva and his companions in a consistently positive light. They are unfailingly noble, courageous, self-sacrificial, and kind; and they are simply appealing, in terms of looking like a group of friends you'd enjoy hanging out with. Considering how many culture-war strikes there are against Opus Dei and its founder, that's surprising and refreshing. Dragons presents an interesting comparison with director Roland Joffe's excellent 1986 film, The Mission, in which 18th century Jesuits sought to protect South American Indians from Portuguese slave traders, a theme which was seen as friendly to left-wing Christianity and Liberation theology. That Joffe now presents Escriva and his Opus Dei as heroic is certainly intriguing.
The story, set in Spain in the early 1900s, begins with Robert Torres, an author charged with preparing a biography of Escriva. In the course of research he learns, to his surprise, that his estranged father, Manolo, and Escriva were childhood friends. We return to that childhood, and see that Manolo's family is wealthy and proud, while Josemaria's is happy and loving. When Josemaria's family business fails, Manolo's dad forbids his son to see his friend any more, reinforcing the lesson with a beating. "He thought poverty was contagious," the now-aged Manolo explains in voiceover. Manolo conceives a deep envy for his friend. "My dad had more cars, houses, and money, but Josemaria had more dad." Manolo's father instructs him: "When push comes to shove, a man has only one duty: to choose the winning side."