Review: Rare gem ‘Alcarràs’ shines a light on the all-too-hidden lives of farmers
In the opening moments of Spanish filmmaker Carla Simón’s “Alcarràs” — Spain’s submission to the Academy Awards for international feature — the peach-farming Sole family’s littlest members watch as one of their favorite playthings, an abandoned car on the edge of their orchard, is removed by a huge crane that’s come from seemingly out of nowhere.
Proud adherents to a vanishing agricultural tradition of close-knit clans working land as a way of life, the Soles are coming to grips with the fact that they’re the next targets for a brutal displacement. Inspired by the writer-director’s own background — Simón hails from a family of Catalan peach-pickers — “Alcarràs” follows her similarly autobiographical debut feature, “Summer 1993,” by depicting another naturalistic, emotionally astute and exquisitely bittersweet season of heat and anguish, in this case possibly the last time the Soles get to do what they’ve been doing for generations.
They face eviction because grandfather Rogelio (Josep Abad) — gentle keeper of the old ways and the stories that bind them to the landowners — never secured a signed contract from their wealthy benefactors, whose ancestors were once sheltered by the Soles when fascists hunted the gentry. But a simpler era’s handshake promise means little when today’s business-minded owners plan to cut down the fruit trees and install solar panels.
The stress is evident in the pinched face, bad back and ill temper of Rogelio’s hard-driving son Quimet (Jordi Pujol Dolcet). Ignoring what’s imminent while overseeing a sped-up harvest, he shows little concern for how his volatility is affecting the cohesion of his extended, multi-generational family, many of whom live under the same roof yet don’t see their situation the same way. While the younger cousins frolic in what’s one big rural playground for them, Quimet’s underappreciated wife, Dolors (Anna Otín), puts on a brave face running the household. And while his sister and brother-in-law see adaptation as necessary, the oldest kids — pop-music-loving preteen Mariona (Xènia Roset) and college-aged Roger (Albert Bosch), growing pot secretly on the property — live in a watchful, unsettled state of wanting to honor the life they’ve always known yet grasping a need for independence.
It’s invigorating how lived-in “Alcarràs” feels in its documentary-like details, and in the golden, leafy warmth of Daniela Cajías’ cinematography, even as the movie shows all the hallmarks of a carefully mapped story of hearts and minds colliding and caroming off into different directions, yet always trying to get back to common ground. One meeting point is realizing who the true enemies are: industrial giants that flatten prices and drive people away from farming. Maybe, Simón ultimately suggests, the family that protests together stays together.
Simón’s brilliant way with non-professional actors, especially her younger performers, is fast becoming a cornerstone of her style of observant, sensitive storytelling. And for a group of first-timers who aren’t related to each other off-camera — selecting already-connected family members being a common approach for neo-realists looking for a helpful shorthand — this cast immediately exudes a woven, well-worn authenticity of toil and togetherness. It extends from the unbridled kid energy and guilelessness of playtime field marshal Iris (Ainet Jounou) to Abad’s melancholic patriarch Rogelio, who seeks private moments with the natural beauty that gave his life meaning, and that may soon be gone.
Even Quimet, played by Dolcet with Bob Hoskins-like bullheadedness, is hardly a one-note figure in his relentlessness and rage — in moments of drunken revelry and vulnerability he’s as much the heart of the family as anyone else. He’s simply up against an end, a change, a modern reality that cannot be stopped or slowed by faster picking, fits, pleas, or grandpa’s gifts of freshly pulled produce or freshly killed rabbits laid at a titleholder’s doorstep as if what was happening amounted to a neighborly dispute.
Movies about the people who grow our food, who struggle as honest land stewards in a time of heartless industry, are few and far between, making “Alcarràs” a rare gem. In its unforced, plaintive artistry, it nurtures to a palpable ripeness the beauty and burden in these all-too-hidden lives.
In Spanish with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours
Playing: Starts Jan. 6, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; Laemmle Glendale; available Feb. 24 on Mubi
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