Tragic Catalan Family Drama Alcarràs Finds Love and Loss in Toil

Movies Reviews Carla Simón
Tragic Catalan Family Drama Alcarràs Finds Love and Loss in Toil

From the first shot of Carla Simón’s family drama Alcarràs there is a visual preoccupation with car interiors. Characters are framed by the smudged windscreen, held within the safe, impersonal metal frame, hurtling between hilly vistas and grey suburbs. For the Solé family who are perpetually caught in the flux of natural cycles, the car is a haven, a way for them to control the way the world moves around them. Whether it be children building a fort in a hollowed-out old car or Rogelio (Josep Abad), the elderly grandfather, taking Mariona (Xènia Roset) to their landlord’s house, the car is a place to take shelter from the encroaching heat.

Alcarràs is the story of a family of peach farmers, hopelessly toiling under the Catalan sun, despite their landlord (Jacob Diarte) planning to tear their land up to install solar panels. Simón’s first feature film, Summer 1993, was praised for her seamless blending of real life and fiction, crafting a sense of earned authenticity. Alcarràs accomplishes something similar. The cast is made up of non-professional actors local to the area. They bicker and joke in markedly honest ways, seeking out one another rather than the camera. They are clothed in warm colors, shirts that are worn from hours spent picking ripe peaches, kicking up dust and lugging full buckets. The house is messy, strewn with things, bustling with arguments. Every creative decision is to serve the back-breaking realism of farming in the face of rampant capitalism.

The family is often sprawled across their home, fleeing the stress of the neverending harvest. Simón crucially never offers us a clear layout of the family’s land, capturing it in a series of close-ups, disjointed and intimate. Every moment is fractured, conveying how disparate the family has become, desperate to avoid the perpetual stress that lingers over every conversation at this pivotal moment. In a particularly tense scene, Dolors (Anna Otín) massages the knots out of gruff patriarch Quimet’s (Jordi Pujol Dolcet) back, while her children do their own tasks, milling around them. Simón chooses to hold them in individual shots, never pulling back to frame them in relation to one another, only catching sight of them as they linger in the background of another’s close-up. It is a careful setup, one that balances the family’s desire for connection—piled into a contained space—against the inability to connect in a meaningful way.

Eventually Rogelio is banned from driving the car. Quimet warns him that it could be dangerous at his age and besides, the landlord doesn’t need any more hard-earned gifts from this family. There is a shadow of recognition that passes across Rogelio’s face at this demand, awareness shattering any façade of control as he stands on one side of the vehicle watching his son storm into the house. The car is blocked in with a puzzle of overlapping objects, stuck in the dark of the musty garage. The look that flashes in Rogelio’s eyes is purposely vague, an acknowledgement of his own age-defined limitations and the wider circumstances of his farm’s fluctuating ownership. This is a single wave in a cascade of small moments—all suggesting that love has to be allowed to develop outside of confinement, to stretch into a shape that feels natural, that flows out from the space they were raised in. Simón’s story politicizes this question: The continual consideration over when to stay and go is determined by money, necessitated by financial circumstances.

Initially, it is hard to understand why this family is still here, drawn to this place and to one another. While it would have been more effective to introduce a sense of shared belonging early in the film, Simón bides her time before delivering pockets of respite. In one particularly lovely moment, the family chases one another around the pool, pushing each person in over a lengthy scene. It is delivered with unpracticed charm, the perfect amount of ease and rough determination of real siblings, in tune with one another’s reactions.

But the most moving moment of familial clarity comes later, as the family listens to Iris (Ainet Jounou) and her cousins Pau (Isaac Rovira) and Pere (Joel Rovira) perform a number. Her wilting, unsteady voice is met by Rogelio’s pronounced recitation: “I sing for my land. / Solid ground, beloved land.” Simón lets the final lyrics tumble out while she lingers on a shot of the peach trees rustling in endless rows, quietly echoing the song’s refrain. Their desire to escape is bound up with more complicated questions of memory and belonging: Where can they drive that won’t lead them back here—picking peaches and complaining to one another? There is consistency to this place that will soon be stripped away, revealing something cold, bare and removed, unchanged by the rolling seasons and oncoming harvest. Simón intimately understands this tragedy and lets her actors dwell on the loss of their “beloved land.”

Director: Carla Simón
Writer: Carla Simón, Arnau Vilaró
Starring: Jordi Pujol Dolce, Anna Otin, Xènia Roset, Albert Bosch, Ainet Jounou
Release Date: February 24, 2023 (MUBI)

London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.

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