Thursday 16 March 2017

Power plant: "The Olive Tree"

Icíar Bollaín is the Spanish director and performer (and partner of regular Ken Loach scribe Paul Laverty) who enjoyed a notable critical success a few years back with the Gael García Bernal starrer Even the Rain, a film about filmmaking that developed into a parable of globalisation. Her latest The Olive Tree, again scripted by the industrious Laverty, would make a leftfield but not completely inapt double-bill with the recent Spanish hit A Monster Calls: although it swaps in latter-day sociopolitical reality for its predecessor's fantasy, it too is on some level a love story between a youngster and a tree. As a toddler, heroine Alma was taught to splice and plant olive branches by her beloved grandfather; as a child, she climbed into the branches of the most prominent olivo on her family's farmland in a fruitless protest against a land grab that saw it uprooted and displaced. This development confers metaphoric possibilities on this gnarly tangle of leaves and roots - but Bollaín's film is, above all else, about an actual olive tree, and what it means (and comes to mean) to its protagonist: when the teenage Alma (Anna Castillo) learns it's being kept in the lobby of a German energy company as a bogus symbol of sustainability, plans are hatched to bring it home.

From the off, The Olive Tree is marked by a very Loachian degree of social engagement. It opens with a none-more-Laverty scene in which the sparky Alma, possibly a distant Iberian relative of Martin Compston's Liam in Sweet Sixteen, takes time off from farmwork to prank call an uncle (Javier Gutiérrez), pretending to be a bank employee; before he can twig what's happening, he's revealed an entire sorry history of financial woes. Our heroine's trajectory towards Dusseldorf has likewise been shaped to provide the basis for a pointed yet accessible crowdpleaser, not unlike the heist in 2009's Looking for Eric. With coordinates provided by a plugged-in pal known as Wiki (Maria Romero), Alma tricks her hapless, jobless unc into hiring and driving a flat-bed truck across the continent to the party's intended destination, but the easy pick-up doesn't follow, and her time in the cab leads her to realise her fellow travellers are far more invested in this mission than she originally anticipated. We're never too far from a broad stroke: Alma's contacts in Germany exist chiefly to pull up YouTube clips illustrating the effect Big Energy is having on the environment, a slightly heavy-handed means of underlining otherwise economically delivered editorial.

Even so, one suspects Alma's journey would make an effective and affecting primer for younger viewers keen to get into some form of activism. (Heaven knows the world could do with them right now.) Bollaín hands them a striking postergirl in Castillo, who - with her step haircut and steady gaze - most often resembles a more rebellious Bérénice Bejo, and at every turn considerable attempt has been made to dramatise how globalisation might yet be stalled or countered by other forms of connectivity, be that social media or good old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground people power. The road movie element allows our driver to share something of his life experience with his passengers (and vice versa); it also permits Bollaín and Laverty to make sly and (as things stand) poignant points about the freedoms of the New Europe, those gaps through which a person might still sneak in order to flourish. Certainly, it seems significant that the uncle should end up with a scale replica of the Statue of Liberty on the back of the truck for some part of the trip, and that Alma, when warned of the distance separating Galicia from North Rhine-Westphalia, should respond with but two words, delivered with a gleam in her eye: "Open borders." Wherever the non-Scottish part of the once-United Kingdom is headed in the months and years to come, we're going to miss those - and, you can't help but think, the films (and the relationships) that come with them.

The Olive Tree opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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