'While at War' ('Mientras Dure La Guerra'): Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of Film Factory
Sharply on-message, but lacking in flair.

Alejandro Amenábar’s first all-Spanish film since 'The Sea Inside' explores a fascinating footnote to the Spanish Civil War against the wider backdrop of Franco’s rise to power.

Aside from delivering terrific work in a range of genres, Alejandro Amenábar — best known for the Nicole Kidman starrer The Others — has often sought to deliver on-message food for thought. The Sea Inside’s moving reflections on assisted suicide won him the 2005 foreign-language film Oscar, while the feminist-philosophy mashup of Agora (2009) divided viewers.

Now comes While at War, a classically put-together study of the Spanish philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno that doubles as an up-to-date warning against the dangers of political passivity. Ambitious in scope, carefully crafted and featuring several fine performances, the film’s depiction of a frail old man realizing that a world changing for the worse is rapidly leaving him behind could have delivered the emotional punch of The Sea Inside. But despite the worthy seriousness of its intentions and the parallels with the present it cleverly draws at every turn, the final impression is of dramatic opportunities left unexplored. While War’s dutiful sense of responsibility to its source material is laudable, it feels limiting.

At home, the film’s balanced view of left- and right-wing — unusual in Spanish films — will raise debate as well as the standard (and falsely grounded) complaints that this is one more Civil War movie we don’t need. Internationally, auds may respond to the fact that this very Spanish tale is one Civil War movie that we do, in fact need, right now — one that warns us that tyrants who are initially a bit of a joke often end up quickly wiping the smiles off people’s faces, and how compassion and dialogue are fragile virtues that should not be taken for granted.

These are the lessons painfully learned by the film’s aging central figure. In 1936, soon after the start of the Spanish Civil War, the ailing Unamuno (Karra Elejalde) made a legendary speech at the University of Salamanca, warning the Francoist Nationalist forces in the audience that they could "vencer, pero no convencer" ("win, but not convince"). Chaos and public humiliation for Unamuno were the result.

War opens with the fluttering flag of Spain’s Second Republic, whose decline the film will go on to chart. A beautifully staged first scene set in July 1936 shows Nationalist troops moving into the square of the cathedral city of Salamanca to declare a state of war before arresting the city’s mayor for the crime of being Republican.

The viewer knows that he will die, but many at the time could not believe in such a possibility. Awakened from slumber by the sounds of gunfire, one of them is the elderly Unamuno, the former rector of Salamanca University and thus one of Spain’s leading intellectuals. Unamuno dons his trademark beret and heads out to meet up with Protestant priest Atilano (Luis Zahera) and his young Marxist protege Salvador (Carlos Serrano-Clark). Salvador, along with Unamuno’s daughter Felisa (Inma Cuevas), is adamant that fascism is on its way, but Unamuno is skeptical.

Meanwhile, trouble is brewing over in Morocco, where Francisco Franco (Santi Prego) is preparing, aided by the Germans, to fly to Spain to support the coup. This second, somewhat livelier strand of the film essentially deals with the establishment of Franco as the Nationalist leader, accompanied by his faithful follower, Millán de Astray (Eduard Fernandez), the populist, one-armed, one-eyed character who founded the Spanish Foreign Legion, who revels in his nickname of “the Mutilated” and who invites Fernandez to spiritedly chew up the scenery on his every appearance. (It was Millán de Astray, both in life and in the film, who shouted “Death to intellectuals!” during Unamuno’s final speech.)

Franco, whose portrayal in Spanish films has tended toward caricature, is a challenge for an actor, since by all accounts the dictator who ended up ruling over Spain for nearly 40 years was a dull little man with a high voice. Prego skillfully and compellingly twists this dullness into creepiness, peppering the role with half-smiles and silences that last a beat too long, all the while suggesting that behind the facade there is desperate ambition. Historically, there is the suggestion that Franco may have been behind the plane crashes that coincidentally killed two of his rivals as Nationalist leader, and this is dealt with here merely via a furtive, across-the-table glance between Franco and his politician brother: To this extent, While at War holds up to historical scrutiny.

All of this complex history is smoothly foreshortened by the script, though as ever in military dramas a few too many of the chaps in uniform are simply anonymous, while much of the background — including, crucially, Unamuno’s own history — goes largely unexplored, thus robbing the character of depth. While at War’s problems are thus more with the strand that deals with its hero.

If foreign audiences are familiar with Elejalde at all, it’s for his role in the massive comedy hit Spanish Affair. Here, buried under makeup, he is wonderfully credible as the irascible, sentimental old genius fighting bravely not to be dragged in on the side of the Nationalists.

But the script never ekes out the full force of the drama playing out inside the old philosopher, who is driven by a combination of intellectual arrogance and romantic innocence. With practically everyone telling him that times have changed and accusing him of complicity in the Nationalist cause, and with his friends being dragged off to be executed, Unamuno still refuses to believe the evidence confronting him; despite Elejalde’s best efforts, his stubbornness veers into dithering stupidity, making him a remote and frustrating figure.

The man who wrote Tragic Sense of Life thus lacks the sense of tragic grandeur the character is crying out for, while unfortunately and clumsily, Unamuno’s past is represented by repeated, short, quasi soap-opera sequences of him lying on a mountain as a young man sleeping with his now-dead wife, at one point accompanied by too-syrupy strings. (Amenábar himself composed the orchestral score, which is generally more effective than this.)

The women in the film are secondary characters but are quick to spot the truth of what’s going on, and are morally more even-handed than all the power-hungry males. Even Carmen Franco, the dictator’s wife, is carefully shaded, and if While at War has one point to make, it’s that the division between good and evil is rarely so neat as many would insist on believing.

Salamanca is a beautiful city to have as a backdrop, and Alex Catalan’s photography recognizes that without ever making things purely scenic. One beautifully composed scene has Unamuno and Salvador furiously arguing in silhouette as the sun goes down behind them, the point being that as long as people are still listening to one another despite their differences, there's still hope. But soon, both the speakers are gone — two months after making his speech, which is the film’s wonderfully staged climax, Unamuno was dead.

The editing is not without subtlety, one scene, for example, featuring opera that segues into another with the crude hymn of the Spanish Foreign Legion. And though it offers too little in the way of dramatic light and shade, this is a cannily structured script. As Millán Astray’s convoy of legionnaires disappears into the distance, the camera lingers quietly on an anonymous, forgotten dead body in a ditch. In the years following the end of While at War, this will be the fate of not only Castro, Atilano and others in the film, but of hundreds of thousands more.

Production companies: Movistar +, Mod Producciones, Himenóptero, K&S Films
Cast: Karra Elejalde, Eduard Fernández, Santi Prego, Luis Bermejo, Tito Valverde, Patricia López, Inma Cuevas, Carlos Serrano-Clark, Luis Zahera
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Screenwriters: Alejandro Amenábar, Alejandro Hernández
Producers: Fernando Bovaira, Domingo Corral, Hugo Sigman, Alejandro Amenábar
Executive producers: Guillermo Vidal-Folch, Gabriel Arias-Salgado, Simón de Santiago
Director of photography: Alex Catalan
Production designer: Juan Pedro de Gaspar
Costume designer: Sonia Grande
Editor: Carolina Martínez Urbina
Composer: Alejandro Amenábar
Casting directors: Eva Leira, Yolanda Serrano
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Sales: Film Factory

107 minutes