By Saffron Maeve
A pejorative superficially on par with its sister terms Big Pharma and Big Tech, which imply a gadgety reshaping of the natural world, Big Ag looms heavy over the sunny fields of Carla Simón’s acclaimed Alcarràs, which was awarded the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale and exceeded all box-office expectations upon its Spanish release. Set and shot in the titular Catalonian town, Simón’ssophomore outing surveys a family of peach farmers reckoning with their final harvest, prior to their orchard being razed to make way for a solar panel field.
Peach farming is a generational practice for the Solés, carried out on a plot of land gifted to them by the wealthy Pinyols as a gesture of gratitude from the latter clan’s patriarch: during the Spanish Civil War, which pitted the landowner-affiliated Nationalists against the predominantly rural and urban working-class ranks of the Republicans, great-granddaddy Solé hid and protected the Pinyols, whose proprietary status would have put them at risk of reprisal. However, the paperless economy of the verbal contract that has sustained the Solé clan for nearly a century reveals its precarity when the Pinyol heir, Joaquim (Jacob Diarte), sells their land to a clean-energy start-up, in a seemingly straightforward scheme that would double the profits for half the work.
Joaquim doesn’t once consider the emotional gut punch such a transition might deliver to a family whose identity is tethered to their shared vocation. Big Ag is a bigger culprit, with the price of fruit plummeting to unscrupulous lows, compelling farmhands to abandon their crops in favour of shiny, seductive tech. Harvesting peaches is as much about longevity as it is survival for the Solés, and though solar panels look like progress from afar, they quietly deface this family’s material heritage. Consequently, household tensions simmer: elderly Rogelio (Josep Abad) slings anecdotes about gentlemanly oaths; his grown son, Quimet (Jordi Pujol Dolcet), sour about the lack of explicit land rights, endures backaches which denote the physical tax that the land takes out of the family; teenagers Roger (Albert Bosch) and Mariona (Xènia Roset) shirk their schoolwork to respectively tend to a cannabis plant bed (a cash grab that endearingly mimics his lineal occupation) and choreograph a Europop dance routine for the town festival. But it’s the youngest, Iris (Ainet Jounou), and her twin cousins who elucidate both the gravity and levity of the circumstances, cognizant of their family’s ongoing stress even as they romp around the orchard. It’s this youthful trio that witnesses the first sign of impending demolition: a noisy tractor crane that winches up the ramshackle Volkswagen they play rocketship in.
Quimet intends to fight for the land, though his sister Nati (Montse Oró) and brother-in-law Cisco (Carles Cabós), leaning more towards pragmatism and away from emotion, quickly try to curry favour with the Pinyols. It’s the familiar, materialist-mythic dichotomy of urban landowners versus agricultural labourers that divides the Solés, something which Simón herself understands. Her uncles grew peaches in Alcarràs, and through them she watched one of the world’s oldest professions wane into obsolescence as corporations opportunistically bought up crops decidedly below their cost of production.
As in Simón’s acclaimed debut feature, Summer 1993 (2017), the ensemble of Alcarràs is comprised of non-professional actors, which lends itself well to the director’s burgeoning brand of rural social realism (Simón saw over 9,000 candidates during her casting trips to Alcarràs, El Segrià, and Pla d’Urgell before piecing together her onscreen ménage). Tonally similar to Summer 1993, in which a six-year-old girl quietly grieves the loss of her mother in the Catalan countryside, Alcarràs too spins a story of bereavement and dispossession, the singular ache of losing that which you never quite had. But while Summer 1993 is predominantly aligned with its moppet, Simón foregoes the syrupy potential of her three rugrats in Alcarràs, favouring a holistic, intergenerational sketch of the family as a whole. This, however, means more proverbial mouths to feed and motivations to expound, which the film, for all its assurance, never quite balances. The Solé clan understandably wishes to preserve the literal fruits of their ancestral labour, but their individual motives are undercooked—a case where, dramaturgically at least, less isn’t more.
Alongside the final harvest, which serves structurally as a climax, there’s a series of neat happenings which range from congenial to crushing: Quimet wins a drinking competition; Mariona is iced out of her dance troupe; Roger’s cannabis garden is uprooted; Iris is gifted a wooden recorder. There’s also a great, winking riff on The Godfather (1972), with Mariona and Roger vengefully splaying a slaughtered rabbit on Joaquim’s doorstep. While some of these moments feel fully integrated, others attempt to shore up an amorphous narrative and (impressive) sprawl of personas.
Visually, Simón’s approach is measured but still pleasing to the eye: one can feel the heat and periodic breeze wafting through the reservoir and past the lens. There’s also something of Alice Rohrwacher’s balmy family tableaux in the work of cinematographer Daniela Cajías, with the warm, lucid landscapes and images of children gobbling hot watermelon innards and trucks toting freshly plucked stone fruit. “For me, the camera must tell the story for the characters; love them, caress them without the viewer perceiving other stylistic details,” Simón told Variety. As she puts it, her visual stamp is “rooted in the land,” a miscellany of languid long shots and cutaways to the natural world.
This farmland is a site for psychic exposition, an erogenous zone for Simón’s camera to press into like the soft pulp of a bruised fruit. Ultimately, Alcarràs is less a character study than it is a repository for shared memory: in one evocative shot, we see Rogelio and Iris gazing at the same plot of land, the pair bookending the living history of the orchard: one viewer flushed with decades of remembrances, the other perceiving a pastoral playground. Later, Iris sings a Catalan farming song to her family: “If the sun were a daily worker, it wouldn’t rise so early,” she croons, her youthful inflection sharpening the words’ meaning. Rogelio mouths along proudly: “If the marquis had to harvest, we would have died of hunger.”
At times, Simón’s politics seem disappointingly gentle or misleading—a vague, innocuous tap at institutional leverage and a perfunctory nod toward the adversity faced by Black labourers, all existing within a framework which repeatedly invokes bloody revolts of decades past and includes scenes of present-day protest. However, the film is at its most affecting in moments of quiet resistance, aligning with the director’s desire to make something “luminous” out of glum circumstances. A late image of peach flesh striated by tire tracks compels with its intimations of tactile violence—a literalization of nature annexed by machinery.
Simón says she has hope in organic farming, though Alcarràs’ coda may not communicate that optimism directly. The film’s final beat is devastating (or potentially reassuring, as per the director’s ethos), with the sounds of construction commingling with Iris and her cousins giggling over the sight of the cranes invading. It’s the first and last moment where Alcarràs’ every theme coalesces: grief, jubilation, purloined land, war, notional ownership—tomorrow, today, and yesterday.
Carla Simón, Cinema Scope Magazine, Italy, Spain