Without knowing the history of Salamanca or the Spanish Civil War, this film is hard to understand.
Although a historical fiction piece, the lack of a minor written introduction (which would have set the context) was frustrating, as it was not until several minutes into the movie that the differing factions and loyalties began to make sense.
For example, the opening scene depicts the declaration of War in Salamanca and announces the new rules in place. However, if you have not previously learnt the history of Spain and lack cultural or ancestral ties (in the same way that films about Gallipoli would strike a chord with many Australians), it lacks its power, as it does not engage in the audience in the fear that would have been felt.
In this opening scene you also hear shots being fired at the (now) rebels however there are no visuals, and this trend continues throughout. All violent acts are described, heard (such as gunfire), or filmed after the act (eg seeing a patch of blood). This makes it an excellent educational piece and appealing to a wider audience.
The film is dialogue heavy; and discussions are political rather than emotional. This includes much of the personal exchanges. Perhaps reflective of war times, if you are in agreeance with another’s political stance or actions you are more likely to connect to that person, and although there are some scenes of his family relationships, the main way the film connects the audience to Miguel de Unamuno (Karra Elejalde), is by how he handles complicity in war.
This film has been nominated for 17 Goya Awards. Alejandro Amenábar is an incredibly talented director, perhaps best known for The Sea Inside which won 14 Goya awards. However, it is the type of film that requires you to have some background knowledge to enhance the experience. Reading up on the protagonist, Unamuno (on which the film is based) or at least, Salamanca or the Spanish Civil War, is highly recommended prior to watching.
While at War is currently showing as part of the Moro Spanish Film Festival at Palace Nova Eastend and Prospect.
Click here for screening times.