Alejandro Amenábar has recently released a film about the Spanish Civil War, called Mientras dure la guerra, a title which for many Spaniards must ring like an open ending, and everybody talking about it said how the film did not take sides and that it was clear both parties had committed horrific crimes. While this is true for most armed conflicts, I was curious to see how the film maker had treated this idea in the case of Spain. As a foreigner, I do not pretend to be versed in the finer details of the war, though I have read Almudena Grandes' El corazón helado, which describes those years from a similar perspective.
With my Spanish-Catalan girlfriend and her Spanish, raised in Catalunya, childhood friend, I went to the cinema one balmy November evening. Much to my surprise, nowhere in Amenábar's story did I find any allusion to the above idea, apart from some soldiers justifying their executing of enemies with the mantra “the reds are equally killing all of ours”. But that's just people talking, at no point in the film did we get to see such atrocities. Mientras dure la guerra follows the final months of the life of Miguel de Unamuno, famous Spanish writer who runs the university of Salamanca as its ageing dean. Unamuno celebrates the arrival of Franco's troops, as he has lost faith in the republic and feels only the military is able to restore a modicum of law and order, only to be quickly and deeply disappointed in how the army goes about this task. The subsequent disappearance and death of his closest friends cuts him a lonely figure waiting for his own demise, which, having lost his desire to live, will come soon enough.
The second character who gets close scrutiny is general Franco, who is just as Unamuno marvellously pictured. All acting is outstanding, with special mention for general Millán Astray who is as comically despicable as many viewers may have hoped him to be. Mientras dure la guerra shows the invasion of Spain as a mad adventure of a handful of generals who felt they had to finish what had begun but who after the accidental death of their leader general Sanjurjo didn't really know what to do. In this power vacuum Francisco Franco is pushed to the fore and not being the kind to give up on a hill neither is he going to give up on Spain now he has his hands on it. The fatal decision to forsake a quick march on Madrid to cry victory, instead opting to first thoroughly eradicate the conquered grounds from its enemies, anybody who wasn't known as a devout catholic in fact, was made during these days, with madame Franco's strict interpretation of the holy scripture certainly playing its part in the process. The viewer is left with the feeling that things could have turned out differently quite easily. What if they had first taken over Madrid and inherited a country full of animosities? Would they have set out on a similar killing spree or might the need to restore order have forced them into taking up a more pragmatic stance? The devil, as they say, is often in the detail.
Yet, this conclusion was not foremost on my mind. Back in the street, I was struggling with the question why so many people had been talking about the both sides did it idea. While I am by no means disputing it, I wondered how this could be their main reaction after seeing this particular film. It was as if the story had not been able to wean them of a preconceived conception. It was as if they had not really seen the film, as if their vision on what is often called las dos Españas wouldn't allow for believing their own eyes. And it is not that Amenábar refutes this idea, it is simply not what the film is about. It's about Unamuno and Franco and how they lived through the early days of what turned into fratricide, period.
Where does this fear to accept a personal account come from? Why do we have to contradict ourselves every time we make a clear statement, be it correct or not? Why is the desire to keep the country together considered more important than unearthing the truth? Quite literally, even 44 years after Franco's death many stories are still buried six feet under ground. No one is to blame, sure, let's call it quits and move on. I sympathise with the emotion, but I think it is necessary to understand how the conflict came into being, because it is in such moments that people make important decisions based on what they consider to be their collective identity, something they allow themselves to kill for. And it is in the Spanishness of the Franco marriage that the modern tragedy of Spain is held, as I understand this film. There's a Shakespearian quality to Amenábar's portrayal of the smart but weak general and his iron fisted wife. They chose to revive the days of inquisition and cleanse the lands from heretics. It could have been done much less bloody had cooler heads prevailed, one feels. Which leaves us with the question, was it just them or was their thinking symptomatic for their culture? Is this where it stops being Shakespearian?
When you look at the present hysteria surrounding Catalunya you are excused to think the latter. Even if it were only the Franco matrimony who created the circumstances for full out war crimes, the fact their style of operating still finds so many adepts in Spanish political and media circles should have people thinking about their loyalties. What is Spain to you? Must it be as ugly as everybody claims it inevitably is? Is Spain about bullshitting each other and not being able to calmly discuss differences? Is Spain about beating up supposed fellow-citizens for speaking out on its repressive economic policies? Is this really the best this country has to offer? I hear people from Madrid justify the Catalan leaders' imprisonment, though perhaps the sentences might have been a touch lighter, without them realising they should not even be contemplating the issue. If the Catalan people chose to strive for independence from Madrid, then there is a reason for this, whether their reflection and the conclusion they came to can be considered justified or not. I believe, as a ruling elite you should always wonder why some of your subjects are not happy and instead of physically punishing them for their unhappiness you should listen to their grievances and see if you can come up with a solution. In the country where I was born, it is good practice to give minorities financial support in practising their otherness for as long as they accept majority rule. Let them feel special, what is it to you? Social peace should be worth a few billions.