As part of Spain’s attempt to come to terms with a contentious twentieth century there has been what has become known as a ‘memory boom’, words used to describe the proliferation of books, films, television programmes and other cultural products that reconstruct, revisit and sometimes attempt to rewrite the narrative of this difficult period. Integral to this memory boom has been the cinematic resuscitation of important public figures who played a part in this national history. As a narrative form cinema is ideally positioned to tell these stories and to explore the public figures from a different angle to that of history textbooks and is one of the reasons the biopic has become such a popular filmic form. In Mientras dure la guerra Alejandro Amenábar examines the life of the prominent Spanish author, philosopher, poet and essayist Miguel de Unamuno. This author is part of a generation of authors designated the generation of 1898, he was a Basque and a frequent critic of Spanish society and its divisions, something that in many ways presages the conflict at the centre of this film, that of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). During the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera (1923-30) Unamuno had been exiled to the Canary Islands, an exile which is referred to in the film. This generation of intellectuals wrote about what it meant to be Spanish and, as this film depicts, the views that Unamuno expressed frequently made him unpopular.
Unamuno is not the only historical figure of note to appear in the film, set at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 the film also depicts the key figures involved in the uprising; the Spanish Civil War was an army-led coup against a democratically elected Republican government. The film explores how this early stage of the war set the scene for the emerging ideology of the forces that were to go on to rule Spain for almost 40 years, the figure of a young Francisco Franco is pivotal. In fact, the title of the film, a use of the subjunctive tense in Spanish and which refers to the uncertainty surrounding the duration of the war, proves crucial to the establishment of this long dictatorship.
The Civil war and its aftermath is perhaps one of the most controversial periods to be addressed by the proliferation of memory boom products. In its focus on Miguel de Unamuno this film is different from many of these Civil War films; it draws us in through the relationships the author had with his family and close friends and uses that as the impetus for an exploration of his changing and controversial views during the Civil War. When films tell stories about the past they appeal to our emotions and our loyalties and ideologies in the present and inform the ways in which we engage with history today. Alejandro Amenábar said that he chose this film because Unamuno had such a dramatic life, and it is certainly true that its release in Spain has renewed attention in his life and work. Unamuno’s defence of the regions of Spain that were persecuted by Franco and the nationalist forces, Catalonia and the Basque country, will inevitably raise questions of the unity of present-day Spain. Unamuno’s most famous essays interrogated notions of certainty and of Spanish identity, views which seem pertinent in a country that is still debating these ideas today.
A philosopher and an intellectual, Unamuno was a writer who worked through complex ideologies and ideas in essays, novels and poetry. It is easy with the benefit of hindsight to designate him an ally of a corrupt and unlawful (not to mention violent) military uprising but it is certainly the case, as the film depicts, that he was not averse to changing his mind; in his lifetime he was a liberal, a socialist, an anti-monarchist, a defender of the nationalist uprising that started the Civil War and, in the most dramatic moments of the film, an orator who made his mark in History. He is an historical figure who certainly raises questions about whose views are expressed and the ways in which these views are sometimes weaponised and legitimised. This film raises questions surrounding the significance of nuance and the role of intellectuals in a tricky political climate, proving that the historical film most certainly has a role in the dynamism of cultural memory in the present but this engagement with the past should not dim our optimism for the future, or as Unamuno himself put it: ‘Deberíamos tratar de ser los padres de nuestro futuro en lugar de los descendientes de nuestro pasado./We should try to be the parents of our future rather than the children of our past.’