Berlinale 2022 review: Alcarràs (Carla Simón)

“The dying days of summer are more emotional than ever in this magnificent, warm, moving film that cements Simón as a director with great human insight and a raconteur of time and place.”

Tinged with nostalgia, Alcarràs, Carla Simón’s sun-drenched portrait of family bliss slowly crumbling under impending doom, packs an emotional wallop through deeply felt characterization of its large cast and a thorough understanding of milieu. A strong Berlinale Golden Bear winner, and quite a change of pace from last year’s chaotic satire Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (a deserving winner in its own right), this now means that all three major European festivals have been won by female directors within the span of a year, a (sadly) unique situation. A loosely plotted film about a tight-knit family, Alcarràs has authenticity and lived-in characters in spades to make it a film of enduring warmth, and that’s not just the result of the Catalan sun.

Frail old Rogelio (Josep Abad) is hunched over a bunch of paperwork on his kitchen table, exasperated. His three children Quimet (Jordi Pujol Dolcet), Glòria (Berta Pipó), and Nati (Montse Oró) are milling around, wanting to know where the contract is. But there is no contract, he knows. Why would there be a contract? Didn’t his father have an oral agreement with the old Pinyol? Shouldn’t that be enough, as it always was?

It isn’t. The days when this sort of agreement between men was sufficient are long gone, and the land the Solé family has been working since the Spanish Civil War to grow their peaches is still owned by the Pinyol family. Joaquim (Jacob Diarte), a descendant of that family, now wants to use the land to install solar panels, as part of a deal with a renewable energy company. That means the Solé family will be evicted and have one more summer harvest left before their livelihood is taken away from them.

Understandably, their uncertain future causes stress and eventually friction within the family. Everyone involved tries to deal with the situation differently, whether relying on longstanding relationships (Rogelio thinking that a basket of fresh figs will turn Joaquim around), pragmatism (Nati and her husband Cisco (Carlos Cabós) taking Joaquim up on his job offer at the new solar plant), or confrontation (Quimet attacking his brother-in-law once he gets wind of their plans).

This is by no means the extent of the family members that are affected. Alcarràs‘ gravitational center is Quimet, whose hulking frame reminds one of a young James Gandolfini. He stubbornly ploughs ahead so he can get one final good harvest in for his wife Dolors (Anna Otin) and their three children Roger (Albert Bosch), Mariona (Xènia Roset), and little Iris (Ainet Jounou). That means cutting costs, thus substituting the already cheap immigrant labor with his own kids. Quimet is a vat of pent-up anger, frustration, and stress, and a bad back after decades of working in the orchard doesn’t help, no matter how often Dolors rubs the knots out of it.

The children each have their own way of handling the upcoming life change. Roger, a teenage boy with a love-hate relationship with his father, loses himself in drinking and dancing, and the side hustle of growing cannabis with his uncle in between taller crops. Mariona acts as if the dance routines she and her friends are practicing are all that matter to her, until the growing rift within her extended family causes her to break. The little one is seemingly oblivious to what is coming, but she doesn’t understand why she can’t play with her cousins Pau (Isaac Rovira) and Pere (Joel Rovira), the sons of Nati and Cisco, anymore.

Simón’s 2017 debut feature Summer 1993 was an autobiographical look at a summer in Catalonia, and even though the Solé family in Alcarràs is fictional you can feel that the background of the Spanish director went into this story as well. Simón comes from a family of peach growers, her uncles running a farm in the town of Alcarràs not dissimilar to the one shown in the film. This intimate knowledge of milieu is what gives Alcarràs the authenticity that makes it such an emotionally satisfying film. Characters and situations are lived-in, also because Simón’s cast of non-professional actors are farmers or people from farming families in the area, lending their performances a naturalism through being acutely aware of the work and the predicament of the Solé family, since many of them share this experience. A strong sense of tradition is tied to their way of farming, a form of agriculture that is no longer sustainable. How long do you hold on to the ways of the past before you adapt? This is a question many in the region struggle with, yet it is also a more universal issue, especially in the southern parts of Europe (Alice Rohrwacher’s Tuscany-set 2014 film The Wonders also dealt with this theme).

Although the throughline of how the dreaded point on the horizon gnaws at each family member and how it increasingly divides them is what keeps Alcarràs on course, in terms of plotting Simón treats the events of their last fateful summer as a slice of life, in which this large family laughs, cries, fights, and works together, leaving the viewer initially scrambling to figure out who’s who and related to whom. One senses that Simón poured a lot of love into this family, no doubt because of her personal connection to their background, and this makes each of these emotions feel unforced and true, and underlines that despite everything these people have a deep-rooted love for each other and for their way of life. Alcarràs is a careful observation of people that are tied closely to the land they toil on, land that they live off and dedicate their lives to. At one point Quimet notices that the plastic around the trunk of one of his trees, which protects it from rabbits that are recurring pests in the film, is not correctly placed. The tree is a metaphor here, for the root of the Solé family and for tradition under threat. The rabbits, that’s modernity. The dying days of summer are more emotional than ever in this magnificent, warm, moving film that cements Simón as a director with great human insight and a raconteur of time and place. Alcarràs is at once a very specific and Catalan film, and a hauntingly universal tale of family and losing one’s roots.