Thursday 19 January 2023

Pick of the week: "Alcarràs"

Summer 1993, one of the standout films of its year, positioned Spanish writer-director Carla Simón as a potentially great director of children, in the tradition of Victor Erice (The Spirit of the Beehive, El Sur). Simón's follow-up Alcarràs, named for its Catalonian setting, opens with another scene of youngsters at play, and thereafter proceeds in much the same vein, finding ample time for bunks, breaks, runarounds and other goof-offs (one mite ends up several feet off the ground in the cradle of a JCB) in which the filmmaker lets the junior members of her cast just be. What's becoming increasingly apparent, however, is that Simón deploys her younger actors as teeny Trojan horses - a means of getting her movies (and thereby us) under the feet of the complicated adult world. These children, by way of example, are the offspring of a sturdy tenant farmer, Quimet (Jordi Puyol Dolcet, the physical midpoint between Sergi Lopez and Stephen Graham), who as we find him - as these kids skip back to him - is discovering the associate who owns part of his land has welched on a gentleman's agreement made many years before with Quimet's now-aged father Rogelio (Josep Abad), and now wants to install solar panels in a field Quimet is currently using to grow peach trees. If you're expecting the landowner to be some cigar-chomping tyrant, you're wrong: Simón makes him a mild-mannered neighbour who just happens to have drawn the conclusion there's more money in energy than there is in soft fruit. It's business, not personal; it's how the world turns these days. And so, once more, this director plants her camera to quietly observe the events of another pivotal summer in the lives of her characters. Pick ye peaches while ye may.

There would be superficial reasons for going to see Alcarràs this dreariest of British Januarys, first and foremost that it's a film set in a peach-growing climate; sit close enough to the screen, and you'll pick up your daily recommended amount of Vitamin D. (Contrast that with seeing Tár, which could only trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder.) But it's also an opportunity to reacquaint yourself with the methods of a filmmaker for whom fiction and documentary are apparently inseparable. Watching Alcarràs, you may well assume that the extended family on screen are an actual family, and/or that these individuals have close personal experience of growing on the land - that they could jump on any Massey Ferguson tractor and know how to operate it. Only the closing credits disprove this assumption - these are, in fact, unrelated, non-professional actors - while underlining Simón's notable achievements in direction. Establishing the characters' relationship to the soil entails an education in how to grow, maintain and pick not just peaches, but figs and tomatoes, too. (Bonus lesson: how best to cook snails al fresco.) It could so easily present as the usual neo-realist vegetables - the cinematic green leaves your elders and betters insist you chow down alongside the new Gerard Butler flick and that killer doll movie you've been dying to see. The Simón corrective is to invite those kids back on set at regular intervals, and have them hare around making their own forms of entertainment. Sometimes they collide with the grown-ups, as when dad snatches up the wooden pallets the kids have repurposed as dens, sending them off to tear up the farm's watermelon patch. But it means that - as was the case with Summer 1993 - Alcarràs functions on at least two levels simultaneously. Here we see the sorry, weary adults, fearful their time on this land is coming to an end. And over here: their blithe, adaptable offspring, liable to rustle up a similar mischief wherever they're eventually set down. They don't notice as we do, which is an extra poignancy - you don't at that age, unless it's something major, and even then it might well be unfathomable to you in your innocence.

As drama, the whole is almost miraculously organic. Given that Alcarràs has been rated 15 solely for bad language, you may wonder whether a two-hour film can sustain itself on the occasional swearword. Turns out it can, which seems doubly surprising once you've clocked how essentially nice and non-combative this family is. Simón taps pre-existing sources of tension (dad's smoking, a teenage son's illicit weed plantation and wastrel tendencies) that don't need punching up or underlining because everyone on screen has long lived with and endured them; she explores rifts, like that between Quimet and his brother over how best to work this acreage, rather than going around looking for fights. The developments and escalations that follow are never forced, and too localised to have been torn from the screenwriter's handbook: the stress of hauling down a solar panel does for Quimet's back, putting him out of action as the harvest gears up. For a while, Simón paints a fond picture of collectivity, as the remaining family members pull together to get the job done. But while the threat of the diggers doesn't recede entirely, the tension within the film isn't that of Quimet's lot versus outside forces; it's within the family itself, who start to buckle under pressure, like poor dad's vertebrae. This is a longer film than Summer 1993, and there are places where it feels it; it's as if in doing justice to this place, people, culture and terrain, Simón felt obliged to fall into the same leisurely pace with which the residents go about their business. Yet allow yourself to settle into its rhythms, and Alcarràs becomes properly transporting, right through to a closing shot that provides the best illustration yet of Simón's observational delicacy. Life hereabouts goes on. But everything will be different now. Sometimes only the sharpest of eyes can spot that.

Alcarràs is now playing in selected cinemas.

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