The life and works of Miguel de Unamuno have long been regarded with a mixture of awe and uncertainty. His eccentric personality and political opinions have surrounded his figure with an air of fascination that is rarely seen with other historical figures.
A prolific writer and philosopher, Unamuno was born in Bilbao in 1864 and would move on to be rector of the University of Salamanca and one of the leading figures of 20th-century Spanish literature. Mientras Dure la Guerra by Alejandro Amenábar portrays the life of the philosopher from the start of the Spanish Civil War until his death on the 31st of December 1936.
The biopic is centred around one of the main moments in the life of Unamuno, a Nationalist meeting at the University in which he proclaimed his disgust towards the battle cry of the Spanish Legion (Viva la muerte!) and uttered one of the most infamous phrases in Spanish history in an enormous act of bravery ‘Venceréis pero no convenceréis’ (you shall defeat but not convince). The man had showed his support to the Nationalist movement in the months before the meeting, making his protest all the more surprising.
The choice of cast was undoubtedly sound, with Karra Elejalde (Ocho Apellidos Vascos) playing the eccentric and confrontational protagonist and Eduard Fernandez as José Millán Astray. Karra Elejalde performed the role with success perfectly embodying some aspects of the man’s personality, managing to give a sense of the writer’s character in a holistic way. Eduard Fernández’s depiction of Millán Astray and his contempt towards Unamuno was especially effective; the actor looked quite terrifying as he marched with his legions.
Moreover, the film was very aesthetically pleasing with the golden stone of the buildings in the ancient town of Salamanca, Unamuno’s desk filled with leather-bound books and the countryside which the writer loved so much. As the rector walked through the streets of the town with his flowing overcoat the director managed to create some beautiful frames which added quality to the film.
Despite all of this, some aspects of the work could have been improved. Although the film as a whole was acceptably good and made the character of Unamuno more accessible, it was nothing extremely original within the biopic genre. The soundtrack of the film was unremarkable, so much so that after leaving the screening you wondered if there was one at all. A better soundtrack could have added another level of complexity to the film which was simply not present.
Furthermore, there were some failures in relation to the historical accuracy of the film. Some of these were somewhat understandable as they were probably altered in order to make the scenes more engaging; however, details such as the placement of Unamuno in the film’s main scene or the lack of mention of his sons, who are not portrayed in the film, make you leave the film ever so slightly frustrated. Amenábar himself has already commented on the placement of Unamuno during his speech, reporting that one of the technicians asked him to place him there to facilitate the shooting of the scene. All of these made the film less enjoyable to those who had already seen pictures of the event or were more familiar with the main character’s life which caused the atmosphere that had been created to be slightly dispelled.
However, the biggest fault in the film which made it slightly disappointing, was the lack of depth of the character of Unamuno. It is extremely difficult, or perhaps
impossible, to fully transmit a sense of a person’s character to an audience. However, the film does not show Unamuno’s more intellectual side or his work. His intelligence and the importance of his influence on Spanish culture is mentioned occasionally by the other characters but, had you entered the film without knowing who he was, you would have left without knowing that he was one of the greatest minds of Spanish history.
All in all, the film was quite pleasant to watch and made the character of Unamuno more accessible while portraying a different side of the Spanish Civil War. Although we all expected to be met with a constant stream of wisdom from the intellectual the
director chose to concentrate on the action rather than his work or his complex past in relation to different political figures. The biopic was quite well executed, if slightly too generic and unoriginal.
By Angélica Ors
Illustration by Sharon Wang