Alcarràs begins with a scene of rambunctious children, and thus my threshold for irritation is lowered. Carla Simón’s second film takes a family of peach farmers in Catalonia as its subject. The Solé clan has worked on the land for generations based on an old verbal agreement with the landowners, the Pinyol family. However, the new head of the Pinyols (Jacob Diarte) wants to turn the land into a more profitable solar panel farm. Even though Pinyol says he will allow the Solé family to stay on the land if they work as technicians maintaining these panels, such a proposal is an existential threat to the Solé’s history and their own self-sufficiency. This is something that stubborn patriarch Quimet (Jordi Pujol Dolcet) refuses to accept.
The film is an ensemble piece, with three generations of the Solé family and extended relatives embodying a variety of perspectives on their predicament. The children mentioned at the beginning of this review are Quimet’s youngest child Iris (Ainet Jounou), and her twin cousins. As small children, they are largely oblivious, unable to understand Quimet’s stress. The older children, teenage Roger (Albert Bosch, who amusingly resembles TikTok star Francis Bourgeois) and Mariona (Xènia Roset), shoot rabbits at night and dump them outside the Pinyol’s door as petty revenge. Meanwhile, the grandfather Rogelio (Josep Abad) tries to reason with the Pinyols by gifting them figs from a tree that’s historically significant to both families; an ultimately naive bid to remind the Pinyols of a bond that goes deeper than commerce.
Rogelio’s appeal to sentiment signals the script’s overarching theme of tradition being stamped out by a colder way of life where legal formality and market forces dictate the way of things. Simón and her co-writer Arnau Vilaró display an eye for symbolism, and not just with the biblically potent fig tree. Rabbits aren’t just dying due to being shot. The disease is intimated as a reason why their bodies are dotted around the farm and are often seen lying beneath luscious peach trees. The life-giving fruit (both as food and livelihood) juxtaposed with the corpses brings the border between life and death into discomforting proximity, subtly suggesting that the family’s way of life is just as impermanent.
The deployment of symbolism gives Alcarràs a degree of poignancy. However, as a film that is still formally in the realist mould, the film has some blind spots. Simón displays a clear affection for family farms like the Solé’s, saying in one interview, “it is this form of agriculture that is most respectful to the earth.” The film should be viewed in the context of farmers’ increased dissatisfaction with high production costs and low prices for their goods. However, what’s seen, but never adequately explored in Alcarràs is the reliance on the exploitation of migrant workers in European agriculture. The Solés are shown to hire fruit pickers, all of whom are Black and implied to be immigrants, yet none of whom are characterized in any meaningful way. Often viewed in the background or from behind a car window, the lives of these workers are not considered important by the script. Instead, the tragedy belongs to the white European family who, as the film emphasizes, have lived on the land for generations. This is especially since the film seems interested in social reality, as demonstrated by scenes of protesting peach farmers. Ultimately, the disinterest in these seasonal workers hired by the Solés complicates the film’s tragic romanticization of agriculture.
At two hours long and with a wobbly ensemble cast, Alcarràs can also be a tedious watch. The exuberant obliviousness of the small children is meant to be tragically innocent as the rest of the family goes through turmoil, similar to the role of the child in Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road. However, as with that film, I just found the children annoying. The rest of the cast doesn’t stand out, except for Abad as Rogelio: an old man sadly accepting that his way of doing things has come to an end. By contrast, it’s difficult to see Quimet as little more than a hothead whose expression of grief comes too late and registers too little. When it comes to engaging characterization, this inconsistency means that those two hours often feel stretched.
The relative lack of truly memorable characters in this large cast, together with the refusal to engage with thorny issues regarding migrant workers, means that Alcarràs fails to live up to the hype heralded by its winning of the Golden Bear at Berlin.
Alcarràs is in UK and Irish cinemas from 6th January 2023
by Cathy Brennan