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LONDON (Reuters) - If Opus Dei had a rough ride in the blockbuster movie based on Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," it looks set for an altogether more sympathetic portrayal in another film that deals with the Catholic organization.
British director Roland Joffe, renowned for Oscar-nominated "The Killing Fields" and "The Mission," is making "There Be Dragons," a film set during the Spanish Civil War that focuses in part on the life of Opus Dei founder Jose Maria Escriva.
Principal photography is complete, and Joffe is now in the editing room aiming to have the movie, which stars Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, ready for theatres by autumn next year.
Joffe originally intended to turn down a project which, owing to its religious theme and Opus Dei's controversial profile, promises to draw closer scrutiny than the average film.
In The Da Vinci Code, Opus Dei was cast as a secretive cult that resorted to murder to defend a fictional, 2,000-year-old Catholic cover-up. It has also been criticized by church liberals suspicious of its power and reach and by estranged members telling of coercion and corporal mortification.
But when he saw a video of Escriva addressing a large crowd, Joffe changed his mind.
The priest, who was made a saint in 2002, was asked by a Jewish girl if she should convert to Catholicism. Knowing it would upset her parents, Escriva told her that she should not.
"One of the things that impressed me a lot about Jose Maria was the fact that he saw that saintliness didn't require that you withdraw into a religious order, it didn't require that you become a priest," Joffe said on a recent conference call.
"But actually saintliness, saintly acts, could be performed by perfectly ordinary people in their everyday lives, which at the time was a very radical idea."
Opus Dei ("God's work") teaches Catholics to strive for holiness through their work. The far-flung, conservative Catholic organization was founded in 1928 and has around 85,000 members, some 2,000 of them priests.
Rather than making a biopic of Escriva, Joffe wrote a script that surrounded the priest with fictional characters and dealt with universal themes of love, betrayal and redemption.
The film's $30 million budget came from a mixture of a media company and some 100 investors led by producer Ignacio Sancha, a Spanish financier and Opus Dei member. Sancha also provided Joffe with a leading Opus Dei member to advise him on set.
But despite his clear sympathies with Escriva's teachings, and the financial and logistical backing by members of the organization, Joffe rejected concerns that There Be Dragons will become a propaganda piece for Opus Dei.
"When I wrote it (letter of acceptance) I said to the producers, one of whom is an Opus Dei member, 'Will I be free to write what I want?' He said the only reason we're coming to you is so that you're free to write what you want."
Sancha agreed. "Roland would never get involved in propaganda, left wing or right wing," he told Reuters.
Propaganda or not, There Be Dragons will be welcome by Opus Dei members who feel their organization has been wrongly maligned because of misrepresentations in popular culture.
"I used to think that Opus Dei was a cult," said Sancha, adding that he joined the group around 20 years ago.
"I was a bit tired of hearing on one hand it was a cult and on the other it was fantastic. I went to them and they gave me access to everything and I came to the conclusion that it is not a cult but one of the most modern parts of the Catholic church."
Joffe said Opus Dei's influence had been exaggerated.
"How could it be influential?" he said. "It could have influence, I suppose, in the church. I checked up to find out how many cardinals were Opus Dei and I think there may be one."
Editing by Paul Casciato