Director: Carla Simón
Stars: Anna Otin, Josep Abad, Jordi Pujol Dolcet
Having elicited all the right noises for her delicately observed and small scale feature debut Summer of 1993, Spanish filmmaker Carla Simón capitalises on that initial promise with her sophomore feature Alcarràs, named after the Catalonian region in which it is based. Summer of 1993 particularly drew attention for the naturalistic performances that Simón managed to draw from children, and its a gift that is cemented here; an ability that seems only matched in the present cinematic climate by the mighty Céline Sciamma.
But Simón’s narrative ambitions have also grown. Where her last focused in specifically on a child reeling from a trauma too vast to yet understand, her follow-up branches out to all tendrils of a family facing sudden and inexorable change. The Solé family farm peaches on land owned by an urban entrepreneur; a deal struck between this scarcely seen luminary and the family’s grandfatherly patriarch Rogelio (Josep Abad) decades prior without anything put to paper. Now the land is being sold to make way for solar farms and the Solés have no recourse to counter. They’ve not the money to buy the land outright. This harvest, then, will be their last.
Quimet (Jordi Pujol Dolcet) and his wife Dolors (Anna Otin) have put their lives into the land and see little to do but carry on until they can’t. Quimet’s years of toil have wrought him a painful back ailment. Dolors is, in effect, his spine – a no-nonsense mother figure who is no stranger to hard work herself. Eldest son Roger (Albert Bosch) flits between impassioned worker and clubbing lout, all while secretly tending his own illicit crop hidden within a neighbouring corn field (a youthful indiscretion but also, tellingly, an extracurricular financial lifeboat). Mariona (Xènia Roset) is a typically sullen, taciturn teenager who’d rather be practicing her dance moves for the upcoming local festivities. Running circles around them all is the family’s youngest, Iris (Ainet Jounou), who loves nothing more than playing with her twin cousins Pere and Pau (Isaac and Joel Rovira).
If Iris, Pere and Pau represent a safety-net of familiarity for Simón, the diverse range of older characters find her a quick study in a disparate array of human behaviours. The vérité style of filming (loose, handheld) leans into this further. At it’s best Alcarràs has the capacity to genuinely fool its audience. The sense of authenticity is so effortless, so lightly captured, that stretches play convincingly like a documentary. It’s there in the hyperactivity of family frolics in and around a swimming pool, in similarly agitated scenes of proletariat activism, and in the more studied, detached moments (a stirring shot of Rogelio lit only by the moonlight bouncing off of a growing number of solar panels).
What makes Alcarràs feel so authentic is what’s missing. Grassroots, working class or otherwise agrarian cinema has the frequent potential to come across as overbearing, sentimental or condescending. Middle class accountings of the hardships of lowly counterparts. Simón – drawing from her own past for elements – avoids such pitfalls. There are no tragic deaths to underscore her politics. No family feuds captured with the leering gaze of a Jerry Spinger or Jeremy Kyle episode. No false-promises with which to manipulate a viewer’s heartstrings. Alcarràs steadfastly refuses to make broad-stroke melodrama out of the lives of its inhabitants. Because of this it detours around the preachy handwringing that has marred the work of champagne social realists.
What it does do is immerse us in a world away from our own. Few and precious are those visits to the cinema where you feel as though you have been transported convincingly and comprehensively into another way of life. Alcarràs presents an exceedingly specific and frequently unseen world to outsiders and through Simón’s light-as-air approach grounds us in a world that is eminently interesting regardless of the scale of the drama.
Simón is capable of jolting her audience, however. One harsh cut early on is punctured by the retort of a shotgun as, in the dead of night, the men hunt the rabbits feeding on their precious crop of peach trees. Dead rabbits come to feel like a harbinger of the manmade blight to come, but overall Simón doesn’t weigh her work down with heavy-handed symbolism. Neither is Alcarràs overly burdened by the sense of inevitable tragedy set up in it’s opening stretch. A couple of narrative moves prompt the possibility of a way out for the family, but these are left tantalisingly and judiciously underdeveloped (which is the exact right amount of development in this case).
What feels more effectively melancholic is the Solé’s unspoken decision to do nothing about the imminent threat to their existence, suggestive of a way of life so pridefully worn-in as to make abandonment unthinkable. They are all rabbits in the headlights, so to speak. Rogelio’s presence roots the family’s labor in Spanish history. He continues to make offerings of figs to the man who is set to end his legacy. Ineffectual, such overtures don’t even feel like desperate bribes, but rather evidence of a guileless respect for the worth of a handshake even as it is reneged upon. Alcarràs carries this undercurrent of sadness, but it doesn’t wallow there. Bright, effervescent but coyly angry about the unfeeling march of progress, this is inclusive activist cinema that also feels like a peek behind a curtain most never knew existed. Expertly played and expertly crafted.