While At War – Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival

Written by Alejandro Amenábar

Directed by Alejandro Amenábar & Alejandro Hernández

Spain/2019/107mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Drain the swamp”. “Taking back control”. Or, in the case of Alejandro Amenábar’s 2019 release While At War: “Long Live Death”. Amenábar searingly paints a sobering and sturdy (true) story of the tactics utilised at the onset of the Spanish Civil War to quash and forcefully remove rebellion opposition through propaganda and violence, and that such brutal measures only prolong suffering, failing to convince anyone. 

In parts loose biography of award-winning academic writer Miguel de Unamuno, more closely a slow-paced costume drama, the film charters the Spanish military coup of July 1936, but likewise While At War reflects a synchronous sequence as a putrid knot tightens, a reflection of contemporary correlations between Franco and present politicians: different men, same words.

A priest, a leftist, and a university dean meet for coffee – just as they do every day. But this day is different – there’s tension in the air, boots on the ground, and blood in the square. In the southwestern city of Salamanca, general Francisco Franco is making a powerplay for control of Spain from the republic. At first, Miguel, a world-renowned author and respected dean, see the uprising as a return of order, even if he disagrees with the methodology. But gradually, as his companions begin to vanish, and the tactics grow more aggressive, Miguel struggles to maintain composure, questioning himself and his passive ideals.

The success of the film sits at the knees of Karra Elejalde’s conviction of performance, holding together the melodramatic aspects and broad strokes of historical storytelling. Arrogant, suave but understandably accomplished and proud, Elejalde captures this esteemed position with a quiet conviction throughout, bursting forth with appropriate emotion when required. His chemistry with friends and foes (often difficult to tell which is which) is magnetic, whether it is an aggressive friendly competition against Carlos Serrano-Clarks with Salvador’s leftist views or a stand-off with the patient, collected and unnerving Franco.

Measured, the inner performance of Santi Prego amongst a brood of bellowing howling men is petrifying as the film advances. Seldom to raise his voice, the raging fire behind Franco’s eyes as a man set on personal and familial success, of a man who will torch the nation to achieve an ambition is troubling in a film where our other antagonists skirt the edges of obscene and cartoonish.

Lavish, on multiple levels of design, Sonia Grande captures the preening and extravagance of Fascists of the era, draped in the military paraphernalia. Endless rows of insignia-toting soldiers, boys, line the streets of Salamanca, the uniformity and distinct colour patterns harsh against the sandstone and pastels of the Spanish sun. Cloaked, fur-collared and prancing – no one struts their peacock-esque stance quite like Millán Astray: the cripple, the military hero and master of propaganda played by Eduard Fernández. Álex Catalán’s cinematography manages to capture the intensity of conversation, narrowing the focus to force audiences into uncomfortable situations where *name gets up-close with his prey. 

Be wary of this lampooning of sorts to the film’s more colourful characters like Astray, as While at War reaffirms the smooth callousness with which evil and bigotry can come to plant themselves, seeding and waiting for their opportunity. 

While at War takes a sobering, and at times bracing manner in communicating the events of the Spanish Civil War, watchers may argue he doesn’t go far enough to lean into the devastation of Franco’s rise, others find discomfort in how open the film is to demonstrate both sides of the conflict, falling victim to the same indecisiveness Miguel did in reality. But what While At War undoubtedly achieves is conveying a sense of sober storytelling.

Review published for The Wee Review

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