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Related Article: Tierra: The Exterminator, Angel, featured in Issue No. 8 of Senses of Cinema.


Vacas, 1991
[Cows]

Gomez/SanchezAt the trenches of Biscay in 1875 during the Second Carlist War, an army sergeant named Carmelo Mendiluze (Kandido Uranga) learns from a young errand boy named Ilegorri (Ortzi Balda) that a neighbor named Manuel Iriguibel (Carmelo Gómez) from his native village has joined their exhausted battalion. Eager for news of his child's birth, Carmelo befriends the inexperienced soldier whose reputation as an expert aizcolari (competition log cutter) cannot conceal his apprehension and fear of armed combat. Manuel's paralyzing timidity results in tragic consequences that is exacerbated by a subsequent ignominious act by Manuel in an attempt to be transported away from the front lines and evade military duty. Thirty years later, in the town of Guipuzcoa, a lingering animosity has continued between the Mendiluze and Iriguibel families. Miguel's grown son Ignacio (Carmelo Gómez) and the Carmelo's son Juan (Kandido Uranga) have maintained family traditions by honing their skills as aizcolari. Despite the strained relations between the neighbors, the destinies of the two families seem fatefully interconnected, as a close childhood friendship develops between Juan's younger brother, Peru (Miguel Ángel García) and Ignacio's sister, Cristina (Ana Sánchez). Similarly, Juan's sister, Catalina (Ana Torrent), cannot conceal her romantic interest for Ignacio as she furtively watches him practice cutting logs in the woods - an attraction that proves to be mutual through Ignacio's playful attempts to catch her already piqued attention. In an attempt to capitalize from the rivalry between the two families, Ilegorri (Karra Elejalde), now a grown man, arranges a waged competition between the two men and soon, Ignacio's career as an aizcolari contender is launched. Invariably, Ignacio's travels to national competitions lead to fame and success, and consequently, prolonged separation from his family and his beloved Catalina. But as the vanquished Juan becomes increasingly obsessed and delusional with thoughts of vengeance, can love transcend the bounds of familial obligation?

Julio Medem creates an intelligently crafted, visually exhilarating, and symbolically rich examination of love, duty, and nationalism in Vacas. The title of the film refers to the passive omnipresence of cows, and also serves as a contrasted allusion to the national tradition of bullfighting. Using the repeated perspective of a spectator (shot through a simulated circular diopter, Medem provides an objective chronicle that captures the incongruous coexistence of peace and violence, friendship and betrayal, tranquility and chaos. Correlating the Mendiluze and Iriguibel family rivalry to span pivotal events in Spanish history, Medem further illustrates the cyclical nature of the unresolved strife and vacillating alliance by using the same actor to portray generations of characters, even those from opposing families. Note the actor Carmelo Gómez's transformation from the cowardly Manuel Iriguibel in the Carlist Wars, to Manuel's son Ignacio in 1905, and eventually, to the matured photographer, Peru Mendiluze, who returns the Basque region at the onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. As the film follows the odd union of the Basque soldiers with the monarchists and the Catholic Church during the Carlist Wars, to the unusual alliance with the socialists and communists for the preservation of the republic against the fascist forces led by Franco during the Spanish Civil War, Medem presents an impartial, yet deeply personal and thought provoking account of the continued devastation, nationalism, and inconstant allegiance of the Basque people, as they struggle for the seemingly elusive causes of autonomy, self-determination, and cultural identity.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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La Ardilla Roja, 1993
[The Red Squirrel]

Gomez/Suarez/NovoOn an empty stretch of highway, a despondent musician named Jota (Nancho Novo) stares out into the sea, trying to gather enough courage to jump. He is distracted from his suicidal thoughts by the sight of a speeding motorcyclist (Emma Suarez) who has crashed through the railing and landed on the shore. Jota comes to her aid and finds that, although physically unhurt, the woman is badly disoriented and shaken. The young woman is unable to recall anything about herself, and Jota cannot find any clues that lead to her real identity. When the paramedics arrive and mistakenly identify Jota as a passenger on the motorcycle, he seizes the opportunity to invent a long-term relationship with her. Calling the amnesiac woman Lisa after his former girlfriend and bandmate, Jota attempts to convince her of their shared, idle life in a beach-front apartment. But soon, Jota's deception proves to be in jeopardy when Lisa begins to identify the physical characteristics of a man on a memory test photograph as that of Felix (Carmelo Gomez). Fearing the restoration of her memory through psychological tests, Jota smuggles Lisa out of the hospital and takes her to a remote campground on the pretense of facilitating her "memory exercises", attempting to reinforce his idealized image of her as his lover. However, as fragments of Lisa's true identity begin to surface, and a determined, obsessed stranger continues to search for her, Jota's unattainable illusion gradually unravels.

Julio Medem presents a clever and insightful film on the nature of love and illusion in Red Squirrel. Through the recurring image of water, Medem creates a visual metaphor for Jota's created and unsustainable image of Lisa: the opening shot of an underwater swimmer; the lake reservoir at the Red Squirrel campground; Jota's playful reference to Lisa as "the siren"; the image of a car plunging into the sea. In essence, Lisa's amnesia provides the perfect opportunity to figuratively create a Pygmalion-like ideal, a woman who has been mentally re-sculpted from Jota's unrealized love and failed relationship. However, unlike Galatea, what results is a superficial and vacuous image of an elusive fantasy, and inevitably, it is the enigma of Lisa's real identity - the compelling need to understand the nature of her true soul - that haunts him.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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Tierra, 1996
[Earth]

Gomez/SilkeTierra opens with a hypnotic journey through space, as the camera soars through the ethereal atmosphere, descending towards an agricultural area, then focusing in on a lone traveler who is having a motivational conversation with himself. A remote village has been infested with woodlice, imparting an earthy taste to the locally produced wine. An exterminator, a self-described "complex" man named Angel (Carmelo Gomez), has been hired by the town mayor to fumigate the region. Angel's inner voice, the figurative angel of his subconscious who has died but continues to exist (and interject opinions) within his corporal self, believes that he has been sent down to earth for a divine mission.

The surreal plot of Tierra may be an allusion to legendary compatriot Luis Bunuel, but the underlying story is uniquely Julio Medem's. In
Bunuel's That Obscure Object of Desire, the protagonist, Mathieu (Fernando Rey), is a vain, hypocritical older man relentlessly attempting to win the undivided affection of a beautiful, elusive young woman named Conchita, and it is her ambivalence that is reflected through the physical vacillation between the two actresses playing the role of Conchita, Carole Bouquet (cold and demure) and Angela Molina (sensual and aggressive). In Tierra, Angel is torn between the sweet, melancholic Angela (Emma Suarez), the neglected wife of a local farmer named Patricio (Karra Elejalde) and the sensual, uninhibited Mari (Silke), Patricio's mistress. Unlike Mathieu's obsession, Conchita, whose shifting persona is portrayed by two different actresses, Angel's object of desire is two separate women, and it is the protagonist who suffers from a split personality. As Angel is gradually seduced by the charming, playful Mari, his omnipresent angel is increasingly drawn to Angela's soulfulness and warmth. With such a polarized conflict within his own mind, Angel's decision takes on a greater significance than the simple selection of a lover and becomes a metaphoric struggle for possession of the soul.

Medem's seamless ability to operate on multiple levels of meaning and intertwine internal and external events elevates Tierra from the stigma of serving as an homage film. Structurally, Medem does not convey the story through circular or elliptical narrative but rather, through fractals, mathematical expressions whose representative cross-section is a reflection of their overall geometric pattern. The film, in essence, literally unfolds onto itself, revealing deeper layers of the same phenomenon. Angela and her daughter bear the same name which, in turn, parallels Angel's symbiotic bond with his own uncontrollable angel. The infestation of woodlice just beneath the surface of the soil is repeated in the rampancy of wild boars above the ground, and the same workers participate in both attempts at extermination. The high electrical activity in the region reflects Angel's overactive imagination and Mari's sexual appetite. The dilemma in choosing between Angela and Mari is a manifestation of the internal struggle within Angel for possession of his soul, and reflects his own split personality. Inevitably, a choice between the two women will irrevocably destroy a part of himself. Tierra is a haunting, visually mesmerizing journey into the strange world of human behavior - attraction and connection, love and jealousy, the spiritual and the corporal - and subterranean woodlice.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Los Amantes del Circulo Polar, 1998
[Lovers of the Arctic Circle]

Nirmi/MartinezThe paths of Otto and Ana literally cross as children: Ana (Sara Valiente), running away from the news of her father's death; Otto (Peru Medem), running after a soccer ball. They are captivated by each other, but leave without saying a word. One day, Otto learns that his parents are divorcing, and to prove his devotion to his mother (Beate Jensen), he chooses to stay with her. In school, he begins to write notes on the nature of love, a question that has plagued him since his parents' divorce, and folds the notes into paper airplanes to send into the school yard. Ana retrieves one of the notes and shows it to her mother, Olga (Maru Valdivielso), who is intrigued by the emotional maturity of the message. Ana points to the nearest adult, Otto's father, Alvaro (Nancho Novo), as the author. On a rainy afternoon, Otto waits for Ana in the school yard with a specific introduction in mind: he would say that his name is a palindrome, that it is spelled the same way backwards and forwards, and that somehow, this revelation would endear him to her. But she does not appear. He opens the door to his father's car...and Ana is there. He begins to recite his rehearsed speech, but she interrupts. Her name is a palindrome too. Soon, Alvaro and Olga become involved, and the two children grow up as step siblings. Ana sees her father's soul reflected in Otto's eyes, and their profound connection makes them inseparable. But their love for each other proves more permanent than their parents' relationship. Now a young man, Otto (Fele Martinez), decides to move in with his father to be closer to Ana (Najwa Nirmi), and a tragedy results from his actions. Racked with guilt, Otto runs away from home. After a failed relationship, Ana also runs away, and moves to a remote cabin in Finland that straddles the Arctic Circle to await the "coincidence" of her life.

Julio Medem creates a hauntingly beautiful and intensely atmospheric story of fate and destiny in Lovers of the Arctic Circle. Similar to Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique and Red, near and chance encounters transcend the novelty of convenient plot device to expound on the film's circular themes and recurring patterns. In addition to the story unfolding in circular narrative, specific events also recur within the film, recounted from separate perspectives by Ana and Otto. Episodically, the film begins and ends with the image of Otto reflected in Ana's eyes. Their palindromic names, near collisions with the trolley car, and an encounter with Otto's namesake, Otto Midelman (Joost Siedhoff), further reflect the film's circular structure. In Ana's opening monologue, she asks: "Can you run back? A few hours back, a life back?" In the land of the midnight sun, in the surreality of the Arctic Circle, it is still not far enough to escape one's destiny.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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