Liberalism and fascism in the Spanish Civil War

Mientras dure la guerra is screening nationally as part of the Moro Spanish Film Festival.

Mientras dure la guerra (While at War)
Directed by Alejandro Amenábar
Starring Karra Elejalde, Eduard Fernández, Santi Prego, Patricia López Arnaiz
Screening nationally as part of the Moro Spanish Film Festival. In Spanish with English subtitles.

The characters in this film are historical and the events depicted actually happened during the Spanish Civil War in the city of Salamanca. However, Mientras dure la guerra is not a war film, it is a character study illustrating human failure and the psychology of fascism.

It centres on the writer, philosopher and university rector, Miguel de Unamuno, towards the end of his life when, after youthful flirtation with socialist radicalism, he has settled into a conservative, intellectually arrogant, patriarchal routine.

The other narrative thread is Franco’s manoeuvring to seize the leadership of the coup, to rise above the junta to become Generalissimo.

The expression “while at war” was originally a caveat written into the council of generals’ agreement on his absolute power. The intention was that it would only exist during the armed conflict – but Franco had other ideas.

The two portraits are of intellectual, moral and personal cowardice contrasted with cynical power grabbing. But this is no simplistic melodrama, it is a highly complex web of conscience with layers of dishonesty and weakness, both personal and political, demonstrating the limitations of political liberalism.

The lessons for today’s world are never articulated but resonate throughout.

Unamuno, while repelled by the fascists’ crassness, allows himself to be manoeuvred into endorsing the revolt, even to the extent of coining the phrase Franco was to use for decades to justify his tyranny: that it was a defence of “western, Christian civilisation”.

While all around him people are being murdered by fascist death squads, he again and again sees himself as a victim, his wounded pride means far more than the gun shots that he can hear from his plush apartment. After all, he can always shut the windows against the noise.

There are many powerful performances in this film. Eduard Fernández as the arch-fascist José Millán-Astray is particularly arresting, if not terrifying. His rallying cry to his legionnaires of “Viva la Muerte! - Long Live Death!” sums up what is at stake.

Santi Prego as Franco pulls off a multifaceted performance. His Franco is not a hectoring Nazi. He is coy and restrained, communicating with a slight smile that lasts a fraction too long exactly what the cogs in his brain are planning.

The female characters, Unamuno’s two daughters with their contrasting politics, the wife of his assassinated friend seeking justice, even Franco’s wife, the Catholic zealot, Carmen Polo are not one dimensional. They are rounded and powerful individuals who each force Unamuno to face uncomfortable realities.

The high drama of the Civil War is a distant thunder throughout the film, yet rarely seen on screen. But the human drama that is shown is enough to keep you thinking for days.

The official trailer for Mientras dure la guerra can be seen here.