Review: Guernica – Gernika (2016)

Guernica – Gernika (2016)

Directed by: Koldo Serra | 106 minutes | war, romance | Actors: Jack Davenport, James D’Arcy, María Valverde, Burn Gorman, Álex García, Irene Escolar, Hugo Silva, Ingrid García Jonsson, Bárbara Goenaga, Víctor Clavijo, Julián Villagrán, Joachim Paul Assböck, Darío Paso, David Mora, Natalia Bilbao

It is 1937, the Spanish Civil War has just begun and General Francisco Franco is also trying to subject the republican Basques to his dictatorship. However, this does not go without a fight and the help of the German Luftwaffe is called in. For Air Marshal Hermann Göring it is the opportunity to test his extensive arsenal. The historic town of Guernica (in Basque Gernika) is chosen as target. Strategically, this town, with barely 5,000 inhabitants, is not interesting at all, but it is the heart of Basque culture. Guernica has no anti-aircraft guns, because the inhabitants feel safe. On April 26, an ordinary market day in Guernica, people just take to the streets to do their shopping, despite the air-raid siren. At 4.15 pm the first German bombs are dropped. Within three hours, almost the entire town is in ruins and hundreds of people are killed. Guernica is on fire for three days. It is the first major terrorist attack on civilians in Europe. Thanks to an eyewitness account by British journalist George Steer, the facts of the attack quickly become clear. In Paris, Pablo Picasso reads Steer’s report in the newspaper and, as a result, creates his most famous work, ‘Guernica’. With the enormous painting – three and a half meters high and almost eight meters wide – he wanted to express the chaos during the bombardment. The artwork became a symbol of the madness of war.

The main character in the movie ‘Guernica’ (2016) is loosely based on Steer. Henry (James D’Arcy) is an American journalist who covers developments during the Civil War from Spain. That turns out to be not an easy job, because his stories are almost all censored by the Spanish republican government. It frustrates Henry immensely that his stories are being turned into propaganda, and becoming cynical he reaches for the bottle. But then Teresa (Maria Valverde) crosses paths. She works as a censor for the Republic and is responsible for screening the news that journalists are allowed to send abroad. The two fall for each other and he gets her to secretly work with him to break the harsh restrictions that are becoming more and more normal. At the same time, Henry discovers that Stalin’s advisers are running the Republicans’ propaganda campaign and that “enemies of the state” are relentlessly persecuted, whether they have something to say or not. And since Henry is not the type to be silenced, he has become a prime target of the Stalinists. But everything changes when German troops attack the city and press freedom becomes a vital weapon.

The events in Guernica played a crucial role in world history. Think about it: Hitler and Mussolini are on one end of the spectrum, Stalin on the other, and they meet in a tiny town in the Basque Country. Moreover, the bombing was a harbinger of the Second World War. For that reason alone, it is remarkable that the bombing of Guernica was not much more often the scene of a feature film (a miniseries was released in 2012, but the films about the Spanish civil war otherwise focus on the tensions in the south of Spain). For director Koldo Serra, who comes from Bilbao near Guernica, this was a very personal project. “For many Basques, the memory of the bombings still hurts. It feels like my responsibility to tell the story in a coherent way. Also because dictator Franco for decades pretended nothing had happened in Guernica and simply flatly denied the bombings and claimed that the inhabitants had set their city on fire themselves.”

So Serra had every reason to make his film. However, the choice to make a romantic drama (against a historical backdrop) instead of a historical drama is a special one. The romance between Henry and Teresa gets disproportionate attention, and that comes at the expense of the war scenes, which seem a bit clumsy. That’s a shame, because the film looks good and the acting (besides D’Arcy and Valverde we also see James Davenport among others) is fine. Serra is too much in two minds and doesn’t dare to make choices. Now the clichéd romantic storyline takes the pace out of the film; it distracts from the historical narrative, because both storylines do not form a coherent whole. Serra has no doubt tried his best, but if your action sequences seem clumsy, your romance is too long-winded, and you also clumsily mix the two up, then you may not be as gifted a director as you may think you are. . The actors do their best and the settings, the music and the camera work are fortunately worth it, but otherwise ‘Guernica’ is a disappointment.

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