Julio Médem: Experiments in Fate, Frame by Frame

A. J. Samuels

What is it about the study of surgery that delivers European artists? What began as a conventional medicine path for these artists has resulted in a much more artistic outcome. Lindsay Parnell tells us that the Spanish filmmaker Julio Médem is no exception: from early on he joined the ranks of many inspired storytellers who abandoned their microscope for the camera.
Born in northern Spain, Julio Médem showed from early on the technical brilliance and acute vision of a filmmaker. His adolescence was spent capturing homemade films with his super-8 camera. Storytelling, both written and visual, inspired Médem from a young age and it was his fascination with the human mind that led him to study medicine. However, after completing a degree in medicine at the University of the Basque Country Médem pursued his life-long passion for cinema by working as a film critic. This soon led him to screenwriting, before obtaining positions as assistant and editor on various film sets.
His debut feature film, 1991’s Vacas (Cows) is a domestic drama chronicling the dual legacies of two families in a tri-generational narrative set in the late 19th century Basque Country. Vacas earned its director great recognition at the Goya Awards and Médem was named Best New Director in 1993. This subsequently established him early in his career as a Cannes darling. A duo of films released in the mid 1990s, La ardilla roja (The Red Squirrel) and Tierra (Earth), both received great critical recognition at the prestigious international film festival and earned the filmmaker a worldwide audience. La ardilla roja (1993) is a cinematic journey depicting a violent tragedy that unites two strangers, Jota and Sofia. In the wake of Sofia’s supposed amnesia, they decide to ‘recreate’ themselves as a couple. As their intimacy intensifies, reality intervenes and the facade of memory is uncloaked in favor of the truth. Following the critical success of La ardilla roja, Tierra was released in 1996. It tells the story of a recently released psychiatric patient and part-time exterminator, Ángel Bengoelxeo, who arrives to a rural farming village in the hope of ridding their wine industry from pests. Ángel’s involvement with two local women proves to be perplexing as he navigates his own identity in the wake of his freedom. Tierra earned its director a Palme d’Or at the 1996’s Cannes Film Festival.
Médem’s critical success continued with Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998), which marked the beginning a period of intense experimentation. Lovers of the Arctic Circle tells the story of two childhood friends reuniting in their mid-twenties in the Arctic Circle. In the similar thematic vein of his early works, Lovers of the Arctic Circle explores the director’s preoccupations with fate, love and death within the circle of life, and the relationship of humans and nature. What definitively distinguishes Lovers of the Arctic Circle from his previous films is the articulation of the narrative, using a circular structure versus a linear, and the film’s composition and texture; in this case a more minimalist approach.
Marking the decade anniversary of his first critically acclaimed film, Lucía y el sexo (Sex and Lucia) was released in 2001. Featuring a stunning performance in the leading role by Paz Vega, Lucía y el sexo tells the erotic tale of Lucia and Lorenzo and the people and stories surrounding their passionate affair. Framed in a non-linear articulation of time, memory and plot, the film’s narrative demonstrates a highly lyrical storytelling. Gently bouncing back and forth between characters and plotline, the film articulates a poetry of its own. Visually astounding and often heartbreaking, Lucía y el sexo is a cinematic masterpiece.
After making successful feature films for a decade, Médem worked on a documentary project, La pelota vasca: La piel contra la piedra (2003). He then returned to fiction with a duo of films in 2010, A Room in Rome and Moving the Arts, and more recently 7 Days in Havana (2012). As he continues to excel at giving birth to truly exciting films after 20 years, audiences and critics both anxiously await Julio Médem’s next project.

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