WHILE AT WAR – TIFF Film Reviews 2019
November 15, 2019

Spain/Argentina production

Director: Alejandro Amenabar

Fall 1936 – The focus of the film is on Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo (Karra Elejaide), essayist, novelist, poet, playwright, philosopher, professor of Greek and Classics, rector at the University of Salamanca. We learn that Unamuno had opposed the Spanish monarchy and was instrumental in influencing the overthrow of the Spanish monarchy, and a supporter of its replacement Spanish Republic.  However, he also was opposed to the excesses of the socialist government in its violent treatment of traditional and conservative elements of the society.  As conservative forces regrouped under military men such as General Franco (Santi Prego), Unamuno supported what he thought would be a corrective to the direction Communism was taking in Spain.  Although cognizant of the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, Unamuno did not immediately recognize the fascist tendencies of the generals leading the rebellion in opposition to the Republic.

Unamuno, an intellectual, was elderly and ill at the time, living with his daughters and grandson, dreaming about the days when he was newly in love, thinking about his beloved wife who had died in the recent past.  Everyday Unamuno went out, no matter what was happening on the streets of Salamanca.  He knocked on the doors of two friends with whom he went to a local bar where the three of them would engage in argument about the political situation.  Atilano (Luis Zahera), an Anglican priest, a member of the Masons, held a conservative perspective, while Salvator (Carlos Serrano-Clark), a socialist, professor and former student of Unamuno’s, argued on the behalf of the socialists and the benefits they had brought to Spain.  Unamuno’s views were generally in the middle, although he was accused of changing his views over time; he had run for office in the early days of the Republic.

It took some drastic events for Unamuno to realize how dangerous the generals including Franco and a mad General, Milan Astray (Edward Fernandez) were.  Events, including murder of the mayor of Salamanca, the capture and imprisonment of his friend Atilano for being a Mason, and the capture of his socialist friend Salvator, clarified the dangers the country was facing.  The military came for Salvator while Unamuno and Salvator were walking together.  He was told to look away as they took his friend away. In an effort to free his friends who had committed no crime, he went to see Franco to plead their cases and was sent away.

He was forced to decide whether to keep silent or stand up to racist rants and hatred spewing out of the mouth of the general Milan Astray at a rally to which Unmuno had been invited to sit on the podium with the fascist generals. 

The director, a young man, explained that what inspired him to make this film, was his daily meeting with older men who spend their time discussing politics in a local park where he walks his dog.  It was difficult, he said, not to have an opinion in that group.  While doing research on the film, he uncovered the role played during the civil war by Unamuno whose writings are studied by students in Spain.

Needless to say, Amenabar, the director, spoke to the relevance of the film to today in Spain and elsewhere.

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