Monday, November 3, 2014

Ärtico (Arctic)

Director Gabriel Velázquez  

ÄRTICO  (Arctic)             B                     
Spain  (78 mi)  2014  d:  Gabriel Velázquez                  Website

Having a kid at 16 ruined my life. 
—Simón (Juanlu Sevillano)

The final installment of Gabriel Velázquez’s trilogy about disaffected youth, following AMATEURS (2008) and Iceberg (2011), using a boldly experimental style where the story is told almost exclusively through striking imagery, offscreen action, and an occasional Flamenco style rhythm established naturally from the beating of one man’s hands on a table.  This mix of old world ritual and modern life intersect onscreen, suggesting it’s extremely hard for young people to find their place in today’s society.  While his previous film was shot in three weeks, this was shot in two, largely due to budget restraints, using only two cameras, shot with meticulous precision in mostly long static shots by cinematographer David Azcano.  The trilogy is all shot around the director’s hometown of Salamanca, Spain, where weaving through the center of it all is the Tormes River.  Simón (Juanlu Sevillano) is introduced in downbeat fashion with his name on the screen, expressing his ultimate pessimism at age 16, wearing a pierced eyebrow and a stud in his ear, where he’s already a father, living at home with his wife and child in his parent’s house, suffocating in a closed-in claustrophobic world where he already believes his life is screwed.  In his father’s house, he’s subject to parental pressure and occasional beatings from his father who does not hesitate from using his belt.  Simón spends his time hanging out with his friend Jota (Víctor García), where both are petty criminals mugging students at school, stealing what they can, where there’s an interesting dichotomy to their relationship, as Simón wants to be free of his family, and would prefer to walk out on his wife and child and be more like Jota, seemingly with no worries and no responsibilities.  Meanwhile Jota is tired of feeling alienated and alone all the time, as his mother is in prison on drug charges, where he’s in a contentious relationship with his pregnant girlfriend Debi (Deborah Borges), who snorts cocaine while babysitting in the park, where the possibilities that a child brings offers a small ray of hope, as without a real family, there’s not much of a future. 

Simón and Jota are both characters that appear in Iceberg as well, where they play a couple of incendiary experts.  In a fascinating visual sequence, we see a musical chairs sequence with birds fighting with each other for their own perch to stand on in a wall of birds, followed by the sound of gunshots as the birds flurry into the air where Simón and Jota proudly round up their catch of the day, where we later see them plucked and eaten for dinner.  Jota and Debi find an abandoned shed in the country not far from town and make it their own home, though we hear nothing but nonstop arguments emanating from the walls, where she continually threatens to kill the child growing inside her.  The mood of the film could be described as instantaneous moments of rage followed by the stillness of the natural world around them.  Set in the 1980’s, shot more as a documentary than a work of fiction, the near wordless style has a haunting effect, if only due to the novelty of presenting a film in this way, where there is no narrative to speak of, but only randomly occurring incidents that appear onscreen, where the viewer may only see the lead-up to an incident, which then occurs offscreen along with the sound describing what’s happening.  It’s an unorthodox and unfamiliar experience, but one that sends something of a shock to the senses, which are elevated by the stark reality of the images, but also a fascinating sound design that effectively incorporates the eloquence of a musical score by Pablo Crespo and Eusebio Mayalde.  The film does have a Bressonian austerity, viewed as a formal exercise using nonprofessional actors, but there’s more of a sinister presence lurking behind every shot, where the violence can be startlingly brutal, reflecting how deeply rooted the hopelessness is built into the fabric of society, where women are continually mistreated and spend hours at home while the men are out drinking and carousing, an example of how the sexism of the older generation is handed down with a similar emphasis on male abuse and domination.  

For whatever reasons, largely based on personal dissatisfaction, where drugs, violence and shattered dreams intersect, both Simón and Jota are victims of their own poor decisions, setting in motion a series of disasters from which there is no escape.  Using a pastoral backdrop of rural fields, forests and rivers, the characters, many of whom are introduced by staring coldly straight into the camera, couldn’t be more alienated from the natural world around them.  Uneducated and unemployed, continually seen riding a scooter aimlessly around the countryside, these kids lead sad and abandoned lives, where the lack of dialogue adds to their disconnectedness, offering a vision of a confusing and loveless world.  Simón wanders alone into a factory, seen from a distant camera, moving with a head of steam, climbing up the steep side stairs into a side door, where a series of gunshots are heard before we see him being hauled away.  It’s a surprising moment that takes the audience by surprise, as it’s a quick burst of action happening offscreen.  This is followed by a long, extended sequence of Debi wandering away from home with her suitcase, seen in real time as she makes her way through green verdant fields into a stretch of trees down by the river, which is always prominently featured in films by this director, usually in scenes with a sense of dramatic urgency.  In what is perhaps the most extraordinary sequence in the film, an impassive long still shot reveals an excruciating moment only through sound, while at the same time Jota arrives in the house to find her missing, running in the same path taken by Debi, where their parallel worlds couldn’t be on more opposite trains of thought.  The film is expressed entirely through rhythm and atmospheric mood, offering breathtaking visuals that are themselves an observing commentary on the bleakness of the human condition, where the barren interior worlds couldn’t be a more hostile environment to bring new life into this world, where these characters are doomed before they ever have a chance to live. 

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