Fele Martínez and Najwa Nimri in Los amantes del Círculo Polar (1998)



(director/writer: Julio Medem; cinematographer: Gonzalo F. Berridi; editor: Ivan Aledo; cast: Fele Martinez (Otto), Najwa Nimi (Ana), Nancho Novo (Alvaro), Maru Valdivielso (Olga), Peru Medem (Otto (child)), Sara Valiente (Ana (child)),Victor Hugo Oliveira (Otto (teenager)), Kristel Diaz (Ana (teenager)); Runtime: 108; Fine Line Features; 1998-Spain)

“I felt caught up in the film’s magical spell despite the many reservations I had about it being manipulative.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is a romantic film that traces in three parts the lives of two children who fortuitously meet at age 8 and feel destined to each other for different reasons. As teenagers they consummate their love and after they have been separated for a long time as adults, try desperately to find each other again. Their lives are compared to how mythical and circular things are and how one’s fate is circular, and how it is not fate alone but free will that determines what happens.

The two children attending the nearby boys’ and girls’ schools, both have palindromic names, Otto (Fele Martinez, Otto as an adult) and Ana (Najwa Nimi, Ana as an adult), which is one of many coincidences used in this film by Spain’s influential film director, Julio Medem (The Red Squirrel/Earth/Cows). The two children form a 17 year relationship from their casual meeting over a soccer ball lost in the woods and from a question posed on a paper airplane flown out of the school bathroom window by Otto and retrieved in the adjacent schoolyard by Ana. She says, “It is too lovely a question about love for any boy to have written.” The audience is not told what that question was except that one student says, as he recovers one of the many paper planes flown with the same question written on it: “It’s corny.” Another student says, “It’s embarrassing.” In truth, those comments crossed my mind about many aspects of this film, as I wavered about my feelings toward the story.

Otto’s father says the question is the most important one in life and Ana’s mother says how romantic it is. They will meet each other through their children as a result of the day Otto flew all those paper planes onto the school grounds. Otto’s divorced father, Alvaro (Novo), is taking Otto home from school to his German mother, and he meets Ana’s mother and they hit it off immediately. They soon get married; so that in a rapidly short period of time the children go from being strangers to being acquaintances, to being brother and sister, and then to being secret teenage lovers.

The film can be told either backward or forward in time (which plays up its palindrome theme). It starts from the plane crash at the end of the film and it haphazardly veers back from there to the beginning and later portions of their lives as the story is interpreted through the eyes of either Ana or Otto, with sometimes different versions of the same scene being told.

Medem makes a symbolic point about relating the children’s lives to a circle, where there is no real ending or beginning to their story. Otto states that every life should include numerous circles and the Arctic Circle becomes one of the symbolic physical circles used. It becomes the location where the frustrated 25-year-old lovers will meet for the last time, after their real life seems to be going around in circles. There are several other symbolic devices that are used by Medem a bit more obtusely (like showing empty gas tanks), and one of those images might even be considered prophetic (the repeated image shown of a car stopping short of a collision with a red bus).

The straight story line goes something like this: Ana interprets her first meeting with Otto in the woods to be an omen that her father is trying to communicate with her, as she has just received the news from her mother, Olga (Maru), that her father died in a car crash. By believing that he is reincarnated as Otto and speaks to her through him, she finds a satisfying sort of solace with her father’s death. Otto did not know what to make of this chance meeting with her but was strongly attracted to her and felt they shared a true bond, and that she will be a part of his destiny.

And destiny is one of the subtexts that Medem coyly toys with, as we learn that Otto got his name from a German Nazi pilot who flew a bombing mission over Guernica during the Spanish Civil War and crashed his plane but was rescued by Otto’s grandfather. Otto has from early on, had an obsession with planes and will grow up to become a pilot and will eventually meet that same pilot in Finland. He had married a Spanish woman he met while trying to escape from Spain. When Otto meets the pilot his wife is already dead. That is in tune with the theme of the film where a loved one either dies, is not found, or gets divorced.

The story stretches the coincidences to a point of incredibility. Medem carries out the argument that both reality and fiction can be likened to a series of circles that interconnect through the efforts of coincidences that may not make sense to our mortal eyes, but these circles are present in either physical places or in events taking place in one’s life.

Happiness does not last forever (nothing does according to Medem), and into the couple’s seemingly tranquil new marriage comes a major setback, the stepmother cheats on Otto’s father with no reason given except it is implied that these things just happen. Otto’s father, who was madly in love with her, will become a broken and lonely man as a result of the separation.

The teenage Otto, who was living with his German mother all this time, moves out of her house to be with the only female he loves more than his mother, Ana. But this breaks his mother’s heart and she drops dead one day when she is cleaning lettuce, presumably from a broken heart. He feels guilty about leaving her and thereby abandons his father’s new family and goes off without telling anyone. There is one scene where Ana and him are in the same outdoor cafe in Madrid, but fail to see each other even though sitting at tables with their backs next to each other. This outlines the course of their fate.

After her mother’s new marriage to the other Alvaro, Ana becomes the lover of someone she met in that Madrid cafe where the ill-fated lovers did not meet. It is Otto’s elementary school teacher, and she will live with him for four-years. She also will become an elementary school teacher. But she leaves her older lover, with the hope of finding Otto again. And, she gets that chance after another coincidence occurs. Her new stepfather hooks her up with his father, who is the Otto that Otto was named after, and the former German pilot will let her stay in a cabin he owns in Finland. She waits for her lover to return. He is now a mail-delivery pilot, seen doodling circles on his pilot’s map while circling around the Antarctic Circle. He is still pining for Ana and suffers from his decision to be alone. His life is damaged by his misunderstandings and miscommunications.

As you might suspect by now, this film is not going to be clearly resolved. Why should it be at this point, it has teased the audience from the opening scene onward and there is no reason why the ending shouldn’t also be speculative.

Ana sends a letter to Otto’s father, a letter that Otto actually delivered himself without realizing it was from Ana and he reads it when he visits his lonely and aging father to cheer him up. In the letter is the same note that she sent to the teenage Otto when she was encouraging him to be her lover and climb through her bedroom window, where she wrote: “Be brave!”

The film will end on two differing versions, one is labeled “Ana’s Eyes” and the other “Otto in Ana’s Eyes.” In the first version, there is a happy ending as Otto parachutes to safety on the grounds of Ana’s Arctic Circle cabin and just misses her, but finally comes into her arms in the pilot’s apartment and supposedly will find some renewed happiness in his life. In the second version there is a sad ending as Otto goes to meet Ana and sees her crossing the street clutching a newspaper with a picture of a downed plane thinking that Otto has died, and she is hit by a red bus and dies. In the final shot, there is a picture of Otto in her eyes. Which one is the true version probably doesn’t matter, as the director will allow you to believe whatever you want to.

Most people I know were put off by this slick ending, and question the filmmaker’s real intentions for playing with the audience like this. But it wasn’t the ending that bothered me about this breathlessly beautiful film, with its stunning shot of the midnight sun and of the Arctic wildlands, as much as the story getting lost in trying to be too fanciful. It was playing with my expectations for things to work out for these amenable lovers, and then delivering only what seemed to be a philosophical message. By not staying on target with the romantic part of the story, the film gets unnecessarily sidetracked.

The directors son, Peru Medem, Otto as a child, gave a dreamlike performance as someone who is wrapped up in innocence and desire, which is tearing at the fabric of his being. He made the story come to grips with what it was about or should have been about, the obsessive love one has for someone that can’t be explained away by rationality.

I felt caught up in the film’s magical spell despite the many reservations I had about it being manipulative. The filmmaker ultimately proved that he has woven a tale about the darkened lovers and their near misses and made it into a tale of haunting characterizations, leaving something mysterious about this intangible romance that held my undivided attention throughout.