The Olive Tree, 2016.
Directed by Icíar Bollaín.
Starring Anna Castillo, Javier Gutiérrez, Pep Ambròs, Manuel Cucala, Miguel Angel Aladren, and Carme Pla.
A young woman, along with her uncle and friends, embarks on a journey from rural Spain to Dusseldorf in order to reclaim her grandfather’s beloved olive tree, which is in the hands of a German energy company after her father sold it to open a restaurant.
On the surface, The Olive Tree feels like a warm, traditional cinematic experience. Spunky heroin Alma (Anna Castillo) is introduced and quickly established as lively and playful, her eyes twinkling mischievously as she plays pranks on her uncle Arti (Javier Gutiérrez), over the phone. We also learn that she is dependable as she sets out on her motorbike to find her grandfather, who has wandered off. As it turns out, her grandfather Ramón (Manuel Cucala) has been silent for years, and we learn in flashback that son his son (Alma’s father, played by Miguel Angel Aladren) sold his beloved, ancient olive tree and he stopped speaking then. Alma soon decides to embark on a journey to rescue the tree from its new home in the lobby of an energy company in Germany, and she hatches a scheme to get others to help her.
Though this plucky-heroine-with-an-important-social-cause set-up is what makes The Olive Tree feel so traditional, it is also what allows director Icíar Bollaín to dig into her true focus, Spain’s struggling working class. The influence of Ken Loach is evident here. Loach, who has collaborated with both Bollaín and screenwriter Paul Laverty (who has written several of Loach’s recent successes, including Palme d’Or winners I, Daniel Blake and The Wind That Shakes the Barley), is one of the greatest ever directors of films depicting the joys and struggles of the working class, and Bollaín is clearly inspired by him without being derivative or overtly reverent. Instead, she shares Loach’s keen eye, and though she similarly zooms in on the tragedy, humor, and complexity of working class life, she gives The Olive Tree a younger, sharper edge by tying the action so closely to Alma.
The brilliance of the film is that it manages to maintain a warmhearted disposition and entertaining watchability while still gently drawing attention to several layers of the issues facing Europe today. In particular, the severe contrast between the German energy industry and the Spanish working class is highlighted, though suggestions of a shared struggle add nuance.
The performances are wonderful across the board, particularly Castillo, Gutiérrez, and Cucala. Castillo shows many shades as vibrant young woman who shares a quiet depth with her grandfather. Gutiérrez manages to make Arti human despite the character’s role as a symbol of Spanish working class masculinity. And Cucala, a local found specifically for this film, gives a fully realized performance despite his character’s frequent silences.
The technical credits are superb, with cinematographer Sergi Galladro’s camera catching both the grandeur of the gnarly titular tree as well as the sparkle in Castillo’s expressive eyes and Pascal Gaigne’s sensitive music coming in at just the right moments.
If anything holds The Olive Tree back, it’s the predictable arc of the second half of the plot, which plays out without much surprise once Alma and company hit the road. As a result, Alma herself loses some of her vigor, which is a shame considering what a dynamic character she is.
Predictability aside, The Olive Tree successfully combines traditional, sturdy storytelling with contemporary issues and current, vibrant characters, and the result is a film that feels crowd-pleasing, artful, and important.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Mike McClelland (say hi on Twitter!)