While At War

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

While At War will screen in competition
"The deeper into the film we get, and the closer the realities of the war become to Unamuno, the more Amenábar and his co-writer Alejandro Hernández lean into the melodrama." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

Alejandro Amenábar takes a stately approach to General Franco's rise to power in Spain in his latest, which also explores, through the experiences and actions of celebrated Spanish writer Miguel da Unamuno, how easily complacency or ambivalence can be turned into complicity - an idea that, sadly, never seems to lose its political resonance.

While those in Spain may find the story all too familiar, concentration is required for those not well-versed with the ins and outs of Spanish politics, at least initially, as Amenábar gets his twin-track story up and running swiftly.

It is 1936 and the Spanish Civil War is in its infancy. We quickly learn that Unamuno - the dean of Salamanca University - has vacillated between sides in terms of his writings, although he would say it is other people, rather than his philosophy that has shifted. Now elderly - and played thoughtfully and soulfully by Karra Elejalde - Unamuno enjoys a small intellectual bubble with friends, a priest Atilano (Luis Zahera) and Salvador (Carlos Serrano-Clark), a young and feisty Marxist, but is dismissive of their fears of the rise of fascism.

Meanwhile, in Morocco, in scenes threaded through with inky humour that recalls The Death Of Stalin we see Franco carefully and almost imperceptibly manoeuvering his way to the top with the help of the bombastic Millan-Astray (Eduard Fernandez, stealing every scene he is glimpsed in by grabbing it by the scruff of the neck). The latter, with one arm and one eye lost in battle is heralded by all as "the glorious cripple".

Interestingly, this is one of (at least) two films at San Sebastian Film Festival this year - along with The Endless Trench - to address the apparent weediness of Franco, who looks for all the world like a sort of Poundshop Hitler and has an incongruously high voice. Here actor Santi Prego shows, perhaps, how Franco used his apparently non-threatening, quiet attitude as a means of manipulating his way to the top. The consummate Machiavel, religion and flags are weapons in an armory that seeks to serve a citizenry of one - himself.

There is strong craftsmanship in all departments, from the period design to the score, also written by Amenábar, to the supporting roles. The portrayal of Franco's wife religiously devout wife Carmen (Mireia Rey), in particular, has weight, as it probes at the way that, rather than practising what they preach, peole are often more prepared to perform mental gymanstics to explain how their ideology - however abhorent - is somehow justified by their beliefs.

Unfortunately, despite his initially economical approach to the two elements of the plot, which sees Franco's gradual gathering of power mirrored by Unamuno's slow realisation that his arrogance has blinded to the destruction and taking of lives that is going on around him, the director can't resist pushing things into sentimental territory. The deeper into the film we get, and the closer the realities of the war become to Unamuno, the more Amenábar and his co-writer Alejandro Hernández lean into the melodrama - epitomised by a repeated slushy flashback scene of Unamuno being cradled as a young man by his now-dead wife. This straining for emotion undermines some of the earlier poise and delicate balance struck by the film, although a climatic speech scene at the university still packs considerable punch.

Reviewed on: 22 Sep 2019
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While At War packshot
Drama about author Miguel de Unamuno and his stance towards the fascist coup d’état.

Director: Alejandro Amenábar

Writer: Alejandro Amenábar, Alejandro Hernández

Starring: Karra Elejalde, Eduard Fernández, Santi Prego, Luis Bermejo, Tito Valverde, Nathalie Poza, Patricia López Arnaiz, Inma Cuevas, Carlos Serrano-Clark, Luis Zahera, Luis Callejo, Mireia Rey, Ainhoa Santamaría, Itziar Aizpuru, Miquel García Borda

Year: 2019

Runtime: 107 minutes

Country: Spain, Argentina

Festivals:

SSFF 2019

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