While at War
The Spanish Civil War has been brought to screen by Spanish filmmakers innumerable times; after the return of democracy in 1977 it seemed to be a necessary atonement and exploration of a horror that still echoes 80 years later. However, rarely has war been depicted in film without specific battle sequences or even of bloodshed. This has been the original and effective new path that Alejandro Amenabar has taken for his newest film While at War (2019).
While At War focuses on the figure of Miguel de Unamuno (Karra Elejalde) the famed Spanish writer and intellectual on the early 20th century. The film finds him in his quotidian life teaching at the University of Salamanca in 1936. However, as the war breaks out with the military coup in the summer of that year, Salamanca is taken by the rebel Nationalists. Unamuno wants to remain neutral about his opinion of the war, but subsequent visits from the Joint of Generals and discussions with his intellectual friends seem to push him to the limit.
Amenabar has always been a filmmaker seemingly more fascinated with the emotional and thrilling aspects of humanity than the political. His previous films have always been genre pieces, both in sci-fi in Open Your Eyes (1997) or his more frequented horror with Thesis (1996), The Others (2001), and Regression (2015). It is in While At War that we begin to see a concerned Amenabar and more political, indirectly commenting on the divisions sprouting around Western democracies as well as the rising phantom of fascism. However, Amenabar is incredibly adept at providing balance to his view of clashing ideologies.
By choosing to follow the historical figure of Unamuno, who was seemingly ambivalent of the war at first, Amenabar is able to craft a rather objective and humane characterization of each side; specifically the Nationalists. In most Spanish Civil War films, the Nationalists are portrayed as evil and incompetent, much like Hitler and his Nazis are in WWII films. This is a one-sided portrayal that takes away from the impact of the horrors that these people perpetrated. By showing Nazis and Nationalists as human beings, instead, one is more horrified by their capability to sow such death and misery. As such, Amenabar takes us into the offices of Francisco Franco (played by a fantastic Santi Prego) as he maneuvers around his other three generals to become the head of state and military. We see him as a quiet and almost shy man, more at the mercy of the louder General Millan-Astray (Eduard Fernandez) or his wife Ana Carrasco Robledo (Nathalie Poza). Franco’s is a portrayal that seeks to understand how such a man ended up leading a major European country for over 40 years.
However, Amenabar’s main focus in While at War is on the battle of ideas, and what’s more, of the necessity to speak up. The core of the film is about Unamuno’s debate of whether to recognize the Nationalists as enemies and murderers, or to stay silent in hopes of them bringing order to Spain. In this sense the film is incredibly meditative and patient, aided by an insuperable performance from Elejalde, who brings about a thin curtain to Unamuno’s inner battles between his sentiments and his cold wit. Amenabar doesn’t seemingly take sides, showing that the horrors and inconsistencies are visible on both sides of the war, and that they should be seen as such. Such a view seems scarce in today’s world, where one is either with or against someone. While at War, and the legacy of Unamuno, seeks to show us that political sides and extremes are both ugly and hurtful in their own ways, and that as citizens we should recognize them as such and say so. There is a very clear defense of the power and value of words, and how it is equally courageous to speak against tyranny as it is to charge into battle.
Amenabar has been able to craft a film that urges people to discuss and see one another. Unamuno as a narrator allows for the exploration and condemnation of extremists and their absurd and impossible utopias. While at War can also be seen as a cautionary tale today, where one should not wait until it is too late to speak out and condemn tyranny. While at War is an incredibly crafted piece, with a minute attention to detail, and a restraint from pandering to a particular ideology. It is this overall balance and clarity for dialogue that allows for an impressionable viewing. For a war film with not a single body or battle seen, its impact and urgency could not be more felt.