While At War (Mientras dure la guerra) (2019)

ALEJANDRO AMENABAR

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB

Spain/Argentina, 2019Mod Producciones, Movistar+, Himenóptero, K&S Films, Mientas Dure la Guerra.  Screenplay by Alejandro Amenabar, Alejandro Hernández.  Cinematography by Alex Catalan.  Produced by Alejandro Amenábar, Fernando Bovaira, Domingo Corral, Hugo Sigman.  Music by Alejandro Amenábar.  Production Design by Juan Pedro de Gaspar.  Costume Design by Sonia Grande.  Film Editing by Carolina Martínez UrbinaToronto International Film Festival 2019.

The dawn of the Spanish Civil War is the setting of this sober, respectable drama that focuses on the real-life story of a professor at the University of Salamanca whose evolving conservative stance reflects the constantly changing landscape around him. Miguel de Unamuno (played expertly by Karra Elejalde) doesn’t agree with his more left-wing colleagues that the anti-communist nationalists taking over the country are the menace that they say they are, like many members of his privileged class he supports the cleaning up of what he considers rebellious upstarts who care more about getting attention and causing trouble than actually changing things for the better. The nationalists are proud of his support and make a totem of Unamuno, a role that becomes a chokehold on him when he begins to realize that their desire to keep everyone in line actually contradicts his academic belief in independent, nuanced thought, and things get that much worse when his friends and colleagues, many with whom he enjoys healthy debates, start to disappear. Alejandro Amenabar has abandoned the narrative inventiveness of the movies that established him, this is a high-budget, well-directed History Channel movie that one can hardly believe comes from the director of such mind-benders as Open Your Eyes and The Others;  that he wants to make a contribution to the art world’s response to the rising popularity of right-wing nationalism is genuinely admirable, but there’s an earnestness to the way this story is told that makes it feel plain and unimportant (despite subject matter that is clearly the opposite). Simultaneous to the story of Unamuno’s slowly growing rebellion against the regime that would eventually plunge his country into decades of dictatorship is the creation of that dictatorship itself, as the nationalists begin to realize that they’ll need to unify their ideals in the form of a single figurehead and, through various turns of events, that figure is the seemingly mind-mannered but increasingly ambitious Francisco Franco (as Eduard Fernández‘s cycloptic General José Millán Astray is far too aggressive to sell to the populace). Including a biographical representation of Franco and his private life suggests that Amenabar is going for a multi-tiered epic, but his screenplay merely divides his cast heroes and villains and climaxes with a public speech before the comforting ending. Watch it and enjoy it, but don’t expect to have your world changed.

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