There are two defining camera shots in Artico, which follows a handful of troubled teens in contemporary Spain, and they’re nearly direct opposites. One is a wide shot, in which the kids are pesky figures in an otherwise idyllic landscape, and the other is an individual close-up, in which one of the main characters stares into the camera while we hear their inner thoughts on the soundtrack. Both distantly observant and jarringly intimate, Artico is a remarkably artful portrait of youthful disaffection, as if Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) or Carlos Reygadas (Post Tenebras Lux) had decided to make a version of Larry Clark’s Kids.
Co-written and directed by Garbriel Velazquez and also known as Arctic, Artico is a continuation of his previous film, Iceberg, featuring some of the same characters and actors. The central four here are Simon (Juanlu Sevillano), a pierced tough guy, at least until he returns to his parents’ house, where he lives with his girlfriend and young son and is routinely whipped by his own father; Jota (Victor Garcia), Simon’s partner in petty crime; Debi (Debora Borges), Jota’s pregnant girlfriend; and Lucia (Lucia Martinez), who sells drugs at the park from the buggy of the infant she’s supposed to be babysitting.
In addition to juxtaposing natural wonders and human angst, Artico also continually positions the traditional against the new.
Such action is depicted mostly in those wide shots, so that the leafy grace of the park itself – to say nothing of the church steeple peeking above the trees – tends to overwhelm the illicit behavior of the characters. Shot mostly in and around Salamanca, with cinematography by David Azcano, Artico features arresting imagery of both rural beauty and man-made architecture, whether it’s the morning mist drifting off a still lake to the formidable concrete staircase outside the hospital where Debi intends to have an abortion. (These two elements – lake and unborn child – come together in the picture’s harrowing climax.)
In addition to juxtaposing natural wonders and human angst, Artico also continually positions the traditional against the new. The movie opens with an older man performing an ancestral rhythm by slapping his hands onto a wooden table. Later Simon and Jota will meet this man, while wearing their American-style track suits, to sell him stolen horses. Another early scene features Simon’s mother plucking pigeons outside their rural home while he’s inside playing a handheld video game.
So is Simon – like the others – just a punk? Artico goes to great lengths – both visually and narratively – to suggest that there are other forces at play. Parents are largely absent, save for the belt Simon’s father wields. Debi laments Jota’s inability to get a legal job because of “this crisis,” referring to the financial meltdown Spain suffered in the late 2000s. And then there are those signature camera shots, in which these kids go from being frantic little ants causing trouble in the world to unsure fellow humans whom we must meet eye to eye. Artico is such a gorgeous and challenging film you won’t be able to look away.