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The Boston Phoenix Circle Game

Julio Medem puts himself on the map

By Peter Keough

MAY 10, 1999:  The problem with magical realism is that it's usually neither. That's especially true in film, whose powers of creating illusion and recording reality tend not to complement but to counteract each other. Magic deteriorates into strained whimsy, realism into sentimental platitudes. Just take a look at Like Water for Chocolate, the recent adaptation of Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, or, for that matter, Life Is Beautiful.

For such a mode to work, it needs to partake more of the nightmare than of a Hallmark greeting card. Julio Medem's Lovers of the Arctic Circle captures much of the claustrophobic symmetry and synchronicity of a dream gone awry, evoking at times the sense of immanent revelation that Jorge Luis Borges describes as the key to the esthetic experience. Yet despite earnest performances and ravishingly poetic imagery, Medem's film finds itself too often frozen in overwrought artifice.

Much like the crashed airplane lodged in snowy tundra of the film's beginning. One of several recurring images, it emblemizes the fate of Otto (Fele Martínez), who with his similarly palindromically named true love, Ana (Najwa Nimri), narrates the film in cryptic, alternating episodes. Otto's life, he tells us, is an uncompleted circle. Ana, on the other hand, as she explains from her final outpost in Lapland, where the sun rotates around the rim of the world, "is waiting for the coincidence of a lifetime." Somehow, Otto's belief in self-enclosure and Ana's faith in the intersection of disparate paths result in a lifetime love story that is sometimes startling but often contrived.

It begins with the pair as bereft schoolchildren. He's chasing an errant soccer ball but is in fact running after a love that will not, as his father, Alvaro (Nancho Novo), says of his love for his mother, Ula (Beate Jensen), "run out of gas." Ana's just running away, thinking that she can escape the news mother Olga (Maru Valdivielso) brings her of her father's death. The two running children's paths collide: Otto sees in Ana the love of his life, and Ana sees in Otto the ghost of her father reincarnated in a stranger.

Their relationship is thus off to an Oedipal/Electral start, and the situation doesn't improve when Alvaro falls for Olga and the two move in together -- prompted inadvertently by Otto's tossing paper planes inscribed with love messages intended for Ana into the schoolyard. Having earlier avowed his undying love to his mother, Otto remains with Ula. But his attraction to Ana is too much -- a scene in the back seat of a car is a miniature masterpiece of desire and repression -- and he joins the new household. Neither is he long content with mere Otto-eroticism, as Ana lures him into her room with a note that says, "Valiente!"

Medem is brave too, in tackling the messiness of life's and love's vicissitudes and in adorning them with elaborate conceits. Brilliantly acted, Arctic is most chilling in its depictions of what love does to people and what people do for love. As Alvaro, Nancho Novo is heart-rending both as the cad who dumps Ula and as the loser who is dumped himself (for, in one of the film's too coy touches, another Alvaro). As the redoubtable Ana, Najwa Nimri earns sympathy with her sensuality and stubbornness. And Fele Martínez ranges from callow to tragic as the romantic doomed to dreams of flight and falling, paralleling the Icarus-like fate of his namesake, a German pilot saved by his grandfather during the Spanish Civil War.

Usually, though, one Otto is enough; the untidiness of life is not clarified by untidy invention. Fortunately, most of Medem's poetic inspirations -- the recurring image of a careering red bus, an Ethan Frome-like sled ride toward an abyss -- reverberate with mystery and dread. Even those that don't do so make a point, suggesting that everything that we hold as important -- love, for example -- is a mere construct, like the painted line on the floor of a cabin that represents the Arctic Circle. As the lovelorn Otto laments at one point, "I lost my destiny, so I had to make one up." But what is made up can also bear the icy burden of truth. The film's final Donne-ian image, Otto's face reflected in Ana's eyes, suggests that the magic of love is all too real.

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