Medem, Julio


Medem, Julio
(1958- )
   During the 1990s, with a remarkable series of films culminating in Tierra, Julio Medem became Spanish cinema's great white hope, equidistant both from Pedro Almodóvar's fashionably stylish but somewhat light melodramas and heavy-handed literal treatments of the past and the Civil War. Medem's films showed an awareness of historical issues and (Basque) national identity, but also aimed at a more sophisticated artistic treatment, indebted to the metaphorical tradition of the 1970s.
   Medem came from a conservative family background, which included German, French, Valencian, and Basque relatives. Through-out adolescence, he attended exclusive schools and enjoyed a high-society background. During the mid-1970s, he was increasingly involved with Basque nationalism, thus refuting some of his class baggage. His first vocation was psychiatry, and it was only after earning his first degree as a medical doctor that he turned to film. Vacas (Cows, 1992) was his first feature, and it remains among the most striking debuts in Spanish cinema. The whole film could be seen as a metaphor for Basque identity, as seen from the perspective of a herd of cows. The family saga is presented as a historical fresco, moving from the Carlist wars of the 19th century, to the early decades of the 20th century and the Civil War, and including elements of magic realism. Critics were impressed by the sheer originality of this approach to the complexity of a situation full of contradictions that, to date, have often led to violence. The film won a special distinction at the Montreal Film Festival in 1993, and Medem was awarded the Goya as best new director.
   His second film, La ardilla roja (The Red Squirrel, 1993), admired by Stanley Kubrick, had a fainter link to historical events, but its narrative lines were even more convoluted. The film's focus on symbolic meanings meant it was hard to get a tight grip on the actual narration, which concerned a woman with amnesia. Notwithstanding (or maybe because of) this, the film became an international hit in art cinemas and the Festival circuit, and paved the way for Medem's third and most ambitious feature.
   With Tierra (Earth, 1996), Medem returned to the magical realism of Vacas, but the storyline was even more ambiguous than in his previous work and more deeply rooted in questions of cultural nationalism. The title's "Earth" was obviously a reference to his Basque homeland, and a central metaphor for some aspects of Basque identity. In the film, an angel-like figure (named, to clear any doubts, Angel and played by iconic actor Carmelo Gómez), arrives at a small wine-producing community to exterminate a plague of insects that are found to be the cause of the wine's distinctive flavor. As the narrative progresses, the texture of symbols and poetic images becomes thicker, and the narrative increasingly more obscure. Tierra is as fascinating in its visual rigor as it is infuriating for audiences who expect to know what is going on, which accounts both for the warm critical reception it achieved internationally and the practical absence of important awards.
   After Tierra, Medem seemed to relax into slightly less ambiguous narratives. His stories for Los amantes del círculo polar (The Lovers of the Arctic Circle, 1999), Lucía y el sexo (Lucía and Sex, 2001), and Caótica Ana (Chaotic Ana, 2007) remain still highly allusive, built on metaphors and dramatically complicated, with recurrent flashbacks or spiral timelines. The three of them make use of stories within stories, and Lucía y el sexo actually focuses on storytelling and writing to blur the limits between fact and fiction. Los amantes del círculo polar is an art romantic comedy with incestuous overtones. Structurally, the film plays around circles and cycles. Lucía y el sexo is even more playful in narrative terms, presenting a series of characters whose lives are interconnected, and who end up converging on the Mediterranean island of Formentera. In 2003, Medem devised and carried out the discussion film La pelota vasca: La piel contra la piedra (Basque Ball: The Skin Against the Stone), an ambitious forum for several factions to debate Basque nationalism. Caótica Ana, his last film to date, focuses once more on a young searching woman (the inspiration was Medem's own sister) who, after bad love experiences, starts to delve into repressed memories only to find a connection with previous women's lives. It was aggressively dismissed by critics, who seemed to be using the occasion to exact a revenge for Medem's previous films.

Historical dictionary of Spanish cinema. . 2010.


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