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Alejandro Amenabar on Spanish Civil War Drama ‘While at War’

On Oct. 12, 1936, as Spain’s Civil War raged, the aged Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno, rector of the University of Salamanca, rose to address rebel general Francisco Franco’s fascist supporters, declaring that he abominated their cause.

He risked execution with his near insanely brave speech. It marks the climax of “While at War,” directed by Alejandro Amenabar (“Open Your Eyes,” “The Others”). The first Movistar+ Original Film, which carries one of the biggest-budgets of a Spanish movie in 2019, the psychological drama world premiered at the Toronto Film Festival as a Special Presentation and now screens at MIA in Rome. Variety spoke to Amenabar.

“While at War” marks your return to Spanish-language filmmaking 14 years after the Oscar-winning “The Sea Inside.” Why now?

It’s always a question of the story: Finding something, real or invented, through which to express myself. I knew nothing about Unamuno’s speech in the great hall of the University of Salamanca.  But I dug deeper, out of simple curiosity. My co-screenwriter Alejandro Hernández and I realized that there was a story not only about Unamuno and the Spanish Civil War but also about Spain, how we Spaniards relate to one another. The film became my vision of Spain…

The film seems a plea for dialogue not confrontation.

Every morning, I take my dog for a walk and meet up with a group of retired neighbors, of different ideologies, which talk, talk, talk about politics, and then go home and meet up the next day. That seems to me to be highly healthy. But some of the conflicts the film points up are not that far from those in other countries. The film talks about fascism. Unfortunately, we’re now suffering its return.  

“While at War” starts with a black-and-white shot of the Spanish flag which, at least at first glance, could be at any time during the last 200 years…. 

Yes, whenever we could connect the past and present, we did do, re-enforcing the link. Franco restored Spain’s current flag, its national anthem and the monarchy. In some ways, Franco’s still very present in our society. There’s a sense of a Stockholm Syndrome about the society he restored. The feeling I had writing this film was of discovering that my father’s Darth Vader.

The film charts Franco’s calculating ascent to power and his realization that he needed to slow down the Civil War to retain power, executing enough of his enemies. Yet, at the same time, “While at War” humanizes Franco….

A writer always has to try to enter his character’s mind, if not a story lacks dramatic interest. One of the most interesting parts of the writing process for me was to plumb Franco’s mind. I decided to include his timidity, problems with pronunciation, his piping voice. He was a bit like Claudius in Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius,” someone in the shadows, who doesn’t seem to be a protagonist, didn’t have the body stance of a fascist, but was a kind of wolf in sheep’s clothing. Yet he evidently loved his family very much and thought he was saving Spain.

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