at Filmhouse Cinema Edinburgh

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Bleak social realism puts the spotlight on Spain’s forgotten youths.

Image of Arctic

Gabriel Velázquez / Spain/ 2014/ 78 mins

As part of the Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival

The third and final instalment of Gabriel Velázquez’s trilogy tribute to the quinqui genre of filmmaking, Arctic explores the loveless lives of five young delinquents in north-western Spain. On the outskirts of Velázquez’s hometown Salamanca, Alba, Debi, Jota, Lucía and Simón are quite literally living on the fringes of society, stumbling from one unplanned pregnancy to the next petty crime as they struggle to keep their heads barely above water.

The film’s most interesting aspect is the fact that all five young protagonists were sourced directly from rehabilitative and protective care; in creating the movie, Velázquez took to the streets and approached youngsters who he thought might fit the bill. What results is an unpolished and raw portrayal of the difficulty of life for these characters who have fallen through the cracks in society and are subsisting in the best way they know how.

Slightly reminiscent of Gus Van Sant or Lars von Trier, Velázquez uses long, drawn-out shots of the breath-taking Salamancan scenery to contrast the beauty of the landscape with the sordid, shabby action unfolding on it. Many of the most important events of the story take place off-screen (jail time for one character, a botched robbery and subsequent death of another), partly due to budgetary constraints but also in order to foreground the latent beauty of the world with the harshness of his characters’ lives. It’s an approach that works well in getting his point across, though at times the tendency to dawdle too long on a sunset or empty house sacrifices audience enjoyment in order to hammer things home.

The sparsity of dialogue and the despicable actions of pretty much the entire cast throughout contributes to an austere depiction of such a life, with little discussion as to where the problems begin and how things could improve. Imagine the morning after a night out Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Ken Loach, when comedown levels are at an all-time high and the prospect of work that morning seems unfaceable; now imagine there is no work, never has been and never will be due to the self-perpetuating cycle of violence and crime in which you’re stuck… you’re not far off the sentiments of this overly bleak insight into the lives of these figures.

The overriding message appears to be the importance of family; a loving father and mother can turn an ugly, disease-ridden pigeon into the beautiful bastion of peace, a dove. Interestingly, the Spanish word for both is the same (paloma), and the glimmer of hope at the film’s finale goes to show how an upbringing can be all-important in determining which one ultimately spreads its wings and flies forth from the family nest. In showcasing such a segment of society, it’s to be hoped Velázquez’s work helps to create more doves than pigeons going forwards.