Arctic (Artico): Berlin Review

A powerfully stark drama about hopeless adolescence, violence and solitude, studded with moments and images that linger in the mind.

The final installment of Gabri Velazquez’s trilogy about disaffected youth won a special mention in its sidebar at Berlin.

The “Gabriel Velazquez” who made Amateurs and Iceberg may have rebranded himself Gabri Velazquez, but the concerns and the style are still very much those of his earlier films. A visually dazzling, largely wordless take on the emotionally desolate lives of a trio of dislocated teens in 1980s Salamanca in central Spain, Arctic is if anything even more potently bleak in its vision of a confusing, loveless world.

Feeling faster-paced than on paper it should be, and with a surprisingly powerful emotional undertow behind its lengthy silences, Arctic issues from a solid directorial place, and is likely to follow Velazquez’ previous films in receiving a warm welcome at festivals with an eye for the challenging and distinctive.

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Most of what we know about the protagonists, who barely speak, comes from the simple intertitles used to introduce them: that of Simon (Juanlu Sevillano) states simply that “Having a kid at 16 ruined my life.” Uneducated and unemployed, Simon and his friend Jota (Victor Garcia: “Without a family, you’re nothing”) ride a scooter around, getting up to no good. A tightly wound team, nervy, haunted-looking and intensely physical -- and as in Iceberg, nonpros whose lives are not so very different from those on display here -- they see themselves as Castilian Robin Hoods.

Simon despises his family; Jota, on the other hand, desperately wants one, and gets his girlfriend, Debi (Debora Borges, magnificently responsible in the final scenes for one of recent Spanish cinema’s more authentically grueling sequences), pregnant. (Reprising the idea from Iceberg, Velazquez is a pioneer when it comes to riverside scenes involving pregnancy predictor kits.) Jota’s plan is to bring up the child in a shed in a field the boys have broken into: It’s a sad parody of what family life should be, but then so is Simon’s own family.

The duo also is involved with local mafia, stealing pigs, horses and fire extinguishers that presumably (the film’s ellipses are pretty demanding of the viewer’s interpretative skills) are used to smuggle drugs, and it’s in the somewhat improbable surroundings of the Salamanca criminal underworld that the film’s uncharacteristically overcooked final movement is played out.

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“Show, don’t tell” is the watchword, the story unfolding via apparently disengaged scenes that sometimes cohere only on later reflection. As a portrait of disaffected youth, it’s truly wrenching without ever becoming involving as drama -- which of course it’s under no obligation to be. The chilliness of the title spills into the treatment: the lack of dialogue and the fastidiousness of the esthetics combine to prevent the viewer from ever feeling too engaged in the characters’ plight, however rich in dramatic potential they are. That said, some scenes are achingly poignant. In one, for example, Jota hurls a ball over the wall of the prison where his mother is incarcerated: The ball contains a note saying, "Mom, you're going to be a grandmother."

Like Iceberg, the film largely is shot in the area around Velazquez’s hometown of Salamanca, a region of huge, lowering skies, vast, empty fields and a wide, sluggish river. It's a frankly idiosyncratic location for the kinds of criminal activity generally associated with the urban. Indeed, it’s to the city center, and to the roof of Salamanca’s magnificent cathedral, that the boys escape when they want some peace.

Like Velazquez’s direction, David Azcano’s photography is all about clean edges and precision details. He uses all the available natural space to suggest the isolation of the characters from one another, shooting both landscapes and characters in long, slow, static shots that seem to confer a degree of dignity and even majesty on these abandoned lives. That said, the film is not above a bit of breathtaking postcard beauty for its own sake.

The landscapes may be beautiful, but the lives of the people inhabiting them are, in a tradition extending far back in Spanish cinema, pretty brutal. The women in Simon’s family spend hours on the back doorstep; the men are out drinking, and Simon’s father beats him with a belt, the sexism of the older generation having been handed down, depressingly intact, from generation to generation.

Flamenco rhythms and music are used to evocative effect: One brief sequence has Jota and Debi fighting in silhouette in a hospital in a scene of grace and beauty that ironically echoes the dance films of one of Velazquez’s mentors, Carlos Saura.
Production companies: Escorado-923
Cast: Victor Garcia, Juanlu Sevillano, Debora Borges, Lucia Martinez, Alba Nieto
Director, Producer: Gabri Velazquez
Screenplay: Carlos Unamuno, Gabri Velazquez, Manuel Garcia, Blanca Torres
Director of photography: David Azcano
Production designer: Arantxa Echevarria
Music: Eusebio Mayalde, Pablo Crespo
Costume designer: Juanjo Rodríguez, Gabri Velazquez
Editor: Blanca Torres
Sound: Sergio Teston, Alejandro Lopez, Miguel Huete
Sales: Piramide
No rating, 78 minutes