The town of Guernica in Spanish autonomous region of Baskia was being carpet-bombed by coalition of fascist forces, German Luftwafe’s Condor Legion, Italian Aviazione Legionaria and Fracoist Spanish Airforce for several hours, until there was almost no building standing in the historical center. The date was April 26th 1937, the second year of Spanish Civil War. The attrocities were reported by the New York Times correspondent George Steer and the thinking world was petrified in shock. Pablo Picasso scraped his work he was hired to do for the 1937 Paris World Expo and made his famous mural-sized oil painting instead. Later on, French left-leaning auteur Alain Resnais made a short film on the subject. And sixty-nine years after the tragedy, there is finally a feature film on the subject.
Koldo Serra, a Basque-Spanish helmer best known for his horror flick Backwoods (2006), evidently had foreign audiences in mind when he decided to do Guernica. The cast is international, several languages are being spoken, the production looks rich and luscious. The overall tone is romantic in a bit corny way, since before the bombs hit the roofs, our main concern is the romance between an experienced American journalist Henry (James D’Arcy) and a somewhat naïve Spanish censor Teresa (Maria Valverde).
And that is where the things are getting interesting and Guernica becomes more than a run-of-the-mill war romance... The very perception of Spanish Civil War is pretty accurate here, unlike the popular version built upon the perception of literature celebrities fighting on the Republican Side. The picture was less black and white and more black and red, the war itself was prety much the proxy for the clash of the totalitarian titans, nazi Germany and comunist Soviet Union, which is presented in the film. The fact is, however, that the Axis countries’ involvement was stronger, more violent and more noticable, the Soviets might not had sent their armies, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t send their propaganda officers, spies and secret police agents trying to shape once liberal Republic according to their own views.
Our point of perspective is Henry, and he is wise enough to despise any kind of propaganda and cynical enough to say it out loud. Teresa is an idealist, or maybe a realist, thinking that that co-operation with the Russians is a necessary evil leading to a greater good and the only way to win the war. But is there freedom without humanity? And would there be any humanity left, after the cold-hearted cynicism and both of the toxic ideologies take their tolls? How it will play out for the two of them?
Before the plot comes to its central event of bombing and the despair that follows more than an hour in, we’ll be seing the political intrigue, the danger of the reporter’s job and the beauty of the nature and the architecture as the contrast to the ugliness of war and destruction. Serra, working with the script by Carlos Clavijo Lobos and Barney Cohen who did most of their work on television, aims for the wide perspective without going into too many details. That works despite somewhat typical characters. The chemistry between James D’Arcy and Maria Valverde is compelling and they are doing a good individually. There is also a gallery of supporting characters, from the antagonists on both sides in the war, more nuanced Russian censor Vasyl (Jack Davenport) and the Luftwafe officer von Richthofen (Joachim Paul Assböck), to the range of journalists, clerks and locals to keep the things interesting for the running time of 110 minutes. But still, aside the nuanced portrait of Spanish Civil War, Guernica is your basic war movie.