Like Carla Simón’s previous film, 2017’s Summer 1993, Alcarràs is an intimate family drama shot in an unobtrusive semi-documentary style with performances so good you wonder how come actors like these get overlooked at awards time. There’s a feature idea – too good for an award (quietly files away idea only to forget it).
Not the film itself, which has won a rake of gongs for direction and screenplay. But if I were handing out the trophies, almost any one of the actors (non-professionals all!) in Alcarràs involved would be a prime candidate for an honour, with Josep Abad at the top of the list.
He plays Rogelio, the aged grandfather and patriarch of a family who have been farming on this big chunk of land in Catalonia since his father saved the landowners’ lives by hiding them during “the war” (presumably the Spanish Civil War). Rogelio’s clan grow peaches, grapes, corn, figs, the stuff that does well on irrigated land in this sunny part of north-eastern Spain.
As the curtain goes up, this is all about to end. What Rogelio knew but, it seems, the rest of the family did not, is that when the landowners, the grateful Pinyols, “gave” his family this land to farm, no formal agreement was ever drawn up between them. None was necessary. The families were close and a word of mouth agreement was enough.
Now, however, a younger Pinyol is in charge and he wants the land back. He’s going to plant solar panels on it. This is a sunny part of the world and solar energy is the future. Rogelio and his clan are the past.
But on they go anyway, picking fruit, trying to keep the extended family together though the lure of “the future” is gradually peeling members of it off.
Abad wears the defeat of the man who has, in his eyes, badly let his family down while director Simón paints a largely idyllic picture of family life – working together in the sun, playing together in a swimming pool, eating a simple meal of snails together, snails that have been collected from their land and flash-cooked under brush and small sticks. Some bread, some wine, simple deliciousness.
But she also weaves through these magical moments several threads all of which are marked “the end”. The grandfather’s sense of himself is fading, his son Quimet is losing his farm, status and dreams, Quimet’s daughter’s is losing her innocence about the ways of the world, while Quimet’s son’s hero-worshipping of his dad also takes a knock.
In another era, 50 years or so ago, the extended family was more often the oppressive institution that the bold, young hero or heroine was seeking to escape. Not here. Simón depicts it as enabling, a source of comfort, of the sort of intimacy not available anywhere else – at night Quimet’s wife massages his knotted shoulders. One afternoon the little daughter and her cousins dress up and put on a show. They sing a song. The family sings along. In a corner of the kitchen Grandma cuts Grandpa’s hair while in an adjoining room the grandchildren dance.
Tenderly observed, I was going to say. But it’s not observed, it’s set up. But such is the naturalness of all the performances that it doesn’t feel that way. You might wonder at the amount of “unnecessary” detail required to keep the documentary conceit afloat, as I did, but the force of Simón’s feelings for this blameless family overcomes those qualms.
A lament for the extended family mucking together in multi-generational harmony – the grandparents largely now in advisory roles only, the parents doing the hard graft, the kids running around and playing and being seconded for work duty only when the going gets tough.
Sad all the way through, a paean to a lifestyle disappearing into history. Quietly, tenderly beautiful.
Alcarràs – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023