Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Spanish filmmaking is alive and well, judging by the post- Almodóvar riches of titles like El Crimen Ferpecto (sic), Platillos Voladores and The Stone Raft (La balsa de piedra. All have a fresh outlook on life laced with a sense of the fantastic. The visual design and technical specs in these Spanish films are the equal of work done anywhere. Frankly, some of these Spanish films are more entertaining than new American product.
Julio Medem's Lovers of the Arctic Circle exhibits the kind of creativity that American independent productions seek but rarely achieve. A strange love story told in circular, overlapping narratives, it follows a fated pair of children through a series of bizarre romantic coincidences. Unfortunately, the universe of Ana and Otto sends as many harbingers of doom as it does promises of harmony. We sometimes can't tell if we're watching a romantic comedy or a cruel tragedy -- the one consistent rule seems to be that Love is never permanent.
The father of young Ana (as an adult, Najwa Nimri) is killed and the parents of young Otto (as an adult, Fele Martínez) break up. When his father and her mother get together, Ana and Otto find that they are an instant brother and sister. As teens the children become secret lovers but are always made aware of the pain of broken hearts and separation. Otto runs away after his mother's death and becomes a mail service pilot on a Scandinavian route. Meanwhile, their surviving parents break up. Ana's mother joins with a Finnish man linked to Otto's family by an almost legendary incident from the Spanish Civil War. Ana and Otto are separated, but bonded by an uncanny pattern of coincidence. Those little miracles are countered by an equally frustrating series of events that almost bring them together across time and great distance ... almost, but not quite.
Julio Medem is an interesting Basque film director who broke through the international barrier with this film and the 2001 hit Lucía y el sexo. Lovers of the Arctic Circle is difficult to describe, even though in many ways it's a conventional romance. In the cold North of Spain we meet children dealing with a family tragedy. Ana imagines that the little boy who chases after her in the park has inherited her dead father's soul; when the same boy turns out to be her new 'mystery brother' Otto, she naturally concludes that a magical fate is at work. The fact that the names Ana and Otto are both palindromes cinches the deal for the perceptive young girl: They belong together.
That's just the opening mystery in a series of riddles. Initially meaningless shots of a young pilot flying over forests and lakes later turn out to be flash-forwards to the third act of the story. Many crucial events are seen twice, from both Ana's viewpoint and Otto's perspective, and are helpfully labeled with titles.
Unfortunately, as childhood dreamers Ana and Otto seek a magical life, the harsh facts of reality work against them. Otto loves his sweet mother (Beate Jensen) and resents his father Álvaro (Nancho Novo) for leaving her. Ana never really understands her mother Olga (Maru Valivielso) but grows up sharing some of her habits, moving from man to man as the spirit takes her. Otto's father eventually splits with both Olga and Otto over another tragedy and winds up alone and miserable, unable to work because of a nervous disorder.
Meanwhile, Otto runs away to become the lone pilot seen over the northern forests. Lovers of the Arctic Circle plays with frustration when the fated lovers, inwardly desperate for each other, narrowly miss meeting in a public square. Both rush to a final reconciliation on the shore of a beautiful Finnish lake, a reunion fated by history: Otto got his non-Spanish name because a German Luftwaffe pilot named Otto bailed out during the 1937 raid on Guernica and was rescued by Otto's grandfather. Ana's mother's new love is a Finn oddly named Álvaro. His father is the original German Otto, who ran away to Finland after his Spanish experience. When Ana is asked if she wants to spend the summer in "old Otto's" cabin in Finland, she figures it's another sign from the fates...
Julio Medem's direction points out these wild coincidences as they occur, which prevents us from reacting negatively; like the lovers' names, almost everything is an odd circle -- except the midnight sun in Finland, which instead of setting moves horizontal to the horizon. The movie's wildly romantic nature may frustrate viewers expecting a happier ending. Actually, there are two conflicting endings but we don't feel as if we're being invited to choose between them. What the movie most closely resembles is a more complex version of the classic 1934 Henry Hathaway film Peter Ibbetson. It stars Gary Cooper and is about similar "fated" childhood sweethearts. They are cruelly separated as adults but manage to live a lifetime of love together through surreal shared dreams. The specifics are different, but Lovers of the Arctic Circle shares the notion of lovers trying to "will" a magical interpretation of life.
Ana and Otto are played by three sets of actors that blend together beautifully as they grow. Some viewers will find the teenage years disturbing, as the "brother and sister" carry on an illicit carnal relationship under the noses of their parents -- technically it isn't incest, but it's definitely an unhealthy development.
Director Medem plays these strange happenings in a distinctive, personal filming style. Unlike so many American independents, Medem's "look" isn't beholden to Tarantino or Andersons Wes or Thomas Paul; neither is it an Almodóvar knockoff. Viewers that love romance and can take some odd emotional turns of fate, may consider Lovers of the Arctic Circle a major discovery.
Home Vision Entertainment adds to its list of quality foreign films with Lovers of the Arctic Circle. The spotless enhanced widescreen transfer is richly colored and helps to trigger our alarm when, in another disturbing pattern of coincidence, characters are repeatedly menaced by red buses. Alberto Iglesias' music is showcased on the strong audio track.
The only extra is a trailer that does not let us know how popular Lovers of the Arctic Circle was in Europe. It's still being called Julio Medem's best film.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lovers of the Arctic Circle rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 27, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson