Though set in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War, “While at War,” Movistar Plus’ first original film, “talks more about present-day Spain than the past,” says director Alejandro Amenábar.

Contemporary relevance and social-issue substance are two hallmarks of Movistar Plus’ productions. Others abound in Amenábar’s movie, which plays in the main competition at the San Sebastian Intl. Film Festival, having world-premiered as a Toronto festival Special Presentation.

A period psychological drama, “While at War” charts Francisco Franco’s rise
to power while writer Miguel de Unamuno, rector of the University of Salamanca, grows increasingly outraged at the barbarity of the Nationalists’ summary executions.

As with many Movistar Plus productions, “While at War” couldn’t have been made so sumptiously without its backing. Movistar boarding the movie was “providential,” says Amenábar. As a project, the film had been rejected or simply ignored by Spain’s free-to-air broadcasters.

“One role of fiction in general — not just series, but films and books — is to encourage one’s capacity to understand others,” says Domingo Corral, Movistar Plus’ director of original fiction.

There’s a lovely scene in “While at War” in which Unamuno and Salvador, a young supporter of the Republic, walk out into the beautiful countryside outside Salamanca, argue heatedly about the rights and wrongs of the Republic and then walk back, still friends.

Partaking of a humanism seen in other Movistar Plus series, “While at War” makes an attempt to humanize Franco, says Corral, showing both his love for his family as well as his effective sanctioning of executions.

The film “addresses the beginnings of the Spanish Civil War from the intimacy of characters trapped in their contradictions, fears and ambitions,” says the film’s producer, Fernando Bovaira, at Mod Producciones. “This contrast between epic and intimate makes it universal and contemporary.”

Though often shot as a chamber piece, it does pack sizable scenes: Franco’s camped garrison outside Melilla; a squadron of planes flying his troops to Spain; Franco hailing a crowd, having relieved the siege of Alcázar of Toledo.

Its drive for production quality makes it possibly the biggest-budgeted Spanish movie of 2019.

When he wrote 2005’s Academy Award-winning “The Sea Inside,” “I thought we’d be able to make a film about a man in a bed for four dimes,” Amenábar recalls. “But the budget came out at about €10 million [$11 million]. When you want to do things well, they cost money.”

Combined make-up and hair design for Franco, Unamuno and General Millán Astray, the rabble-rousing, one-eyed, one-armed confidant of Franco, averaged eight hours a day.

“The production guidelines at every moment were a search and respect for the truth,” says Bovaira. “We realized that in one scene, we had got the columns and colors of a flag wrong. We re-shot the whole sequence.”

Amenabar’s movie also reflects a larger production philosophy at Movistar Plus.

“Our strategy is not about ‘quantity’ — we get our ‘inventory’ from our partners,” says Movistar Plus president Sergio Oslé. “Our goal is to create fictions that are distinctive and make a splash.

“So we are increasingly keen on making our titles events. It is the only way they can make a difference in a market that is overflowing with nearly unlimited offerings.”

Nearly three weeks before the film bows at San Sebastian, Amenábar was already the cover story on El Pais’ Sunday supplement magazine, the film’s plea for dialogue in a divisive age ringing as loudly today as 80 years ago.

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