Reel to Real: Lovers of the Arctic Circle
Watching Julio Medem's complex mind-game, Lovers of the Arctic Circle, a case can be made that words like "haunting", "mystical", "lyrical" and "beautiful" were invented in order to describe it. What other words can possibly describe a film whose recurring motifs are paper aeroplanes flying wildly into the air and pilots falling out of the sky? Add a few more words like "mysterious", "breathtaking", "astounding", and you get a sense of where this film might take you.
Few filmmakers attempt films like this. The similarly-themed Map of the Human Heart (in fact, the two films' titles seem interchangeable, given the contents of both films) was perplexing, disjointed, unfulfilling and disappointing. Where does this film succeed where the other failed?
The slight but incredibly convoluted story presented here does not, at first, augur well. A young Spanish boy Otto - named for a Nazi pilot that his grandfather rescued - is given to fits of passion. One day, he scribbles a question - the eternal question, his father says - on dozens of paper aeroplanes and launches them into the air. His classmates who pick up the missive laugh and giggle, saying it is corny, silly, but Ana, a young girl from the neighboring school picks one up and refuses to believe that a boy could ask so sensitive a question. Through a series of coincidences, Otto and Ana end up as step-siblings who fall madly in love. But fate deals them blow after blow, and the film traverses several continents before landing at the arctic circle, which becomes the site of their closure. Along the way, family histories intersect and entwine, and more than five sets of couples come into play as Otto and Ana try to work out their tortured love.
In an early monologue in the film, it is explained that Otto and Ana are palindromic names, where the beginning and the end are one and the same. So it is with Mr Medem's film, which starts and ends in exactly the same way, with some of the most astonishing visuals ever put on film. Hyper-romantic to the point of almost becoming overwhelming, Mr Medem expertly steers his film clear of tawdry waters and instead carefully toes the fine line between tragedy and farce. Though his lovers continuously face seemingly insurmountable odds, their situations never seem hackneyed or unbelievable. His unhappy protagonists struggle against fate, and it is the nature of love and fate that Mr Medem brings to the forefront in his meditation of relationships - that two lovers could so powerfully move the forces around them, to will their fates into existence, is his most preposterous, and his most poetic, claim.
His cast, led by the exotically alluring Najwa Nimri and the pixie-like Fele Martinez, all perform well. In Mr Medem's elaborate set-up, they are mere pawns to his vision, much as Otto and Ana's families are mere pawns to their destinies. With her hypnotic gaze and his hooded features, Ms Nimri and Mr Martinez both bring a sense of displacement to the proceedings - as realized in their performances, it becomes clear that neither Otto nor Ana truly belong in the real world, which is why they must escape to the outermost limits of the earth, to where day and night become blurred into one continuum, where a circle of frozen time and tumultuous emotions can co-mingle, in order to realize their past, present and future together.
It is rare that a film like this is comes along – rarer still that it succeeds in what it attempts: a meditative thesis on the nature of love and destiny, disguised as an overblown love story. Add another word to the list of superlatives I've already heaped on this film - "treasure"