Alcarràs and Cinema’s War of Technological Progress

Movies Features Carla Simón
Alcarràs and Cinema’s War of Technological Progress

As I tend to watch a good number of new films each year, from as many different countries as I can, I invariably notice themes running through several of them that speak to nagging issues that define the year. I tilted my head as I watched Carla Simón’s Alcarràs when I realized its central brewing conflict—technological encroachment on nature and the disruption of people’s ways of life—was one I had seen form the basis of at least five other 2022 films. I was reminded of Salomé Jashi’s Taming the Garden, Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s The Beasts, Tony Stone’s Ted K, James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water and Shaunak Sen’s All that Breathes, among others. Alcarràs was one of the last films I saw in 2022, at my local theater as part of a European film roundup they do at year’s end. It seemed like a perfect bookend to a string of movies that spoke deeply and with a warning about mankind’s place in the impending cataclysm between nature and technology.

Alcarràs takes place in Catalonia, a region with a history of movements aimed at sovereignty, and that recently held a ceremonial declaration of independence from Spain. Embodying the independent spirit of his region, Alcarràs’s central patriarch Quimet Solé (Jordi Pujol Dolcet) just wants to live and work on his peach farm with his family and be left alone. Unfortunately, his father Rogelio (Josep Abad), who inherited the farm from a rich friend after the Spanish Civil War, never actually signed any legal documents; now the land is being seized by the descendants of the original owners. To add to the problems, they have come into partnership with an energy company that aims to utilize large swaths of the land for a solar farm.

The solar panels—like the wind turbines in The Beasts, which takes place in Galicia, another autonomous region of Spain—are framed as invasive behemoths, dwarfing the characters in the film and covering the land in their shadows. Technological advancement is an inevitable and impending reality in these films, and its slow encroachment is captured by the camera through a gradual taking over of the frame. Quimet’s frustration throughout the film, effectively portrayed in Dolcet’s weathered and pouty face, sees his slow realization of his farm’s impending doom begin to negatively affect his relationships with his family. His controlling nature attempts to preserve their traditional way of life. Every moment threatens to burst into violence.

A litany of cultural changes swirl around Quimet and his family, and while most of them succumb to at least some type of embrace of the technological age, Quimet is steadfastly defiant. His daughter Mariona (Xènia Roset) films dance videos with her friends; his sister Gloria (Berta Pipó) visits from the city, and lives a progressive and socialite lifestyle; his brother Cisco (Carles Cabós) is secretly working with the energy company behind his back. Slowly, the seams that tie his family together loosen, and Quimet faces the crisis confronting many in our rapidly advancing world: How tight a grip can you hold onto tradition before everything breaks?

The value of family is also a major part of James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water. Jake’s decree that “Sullys stick together” is a thread that ties their traditional bonds together, set apart from the impending violence caused by humans seeking to destroy their homes and way of life using futuristic tech. Being a sci-fi film, however, poses the Sullys as an exceptional bunch, whose traditional ways of life encompass a natural power that manifests in a physical ability to overcome technology.

But Quimet’s situation in Alcarràs has the bitter taste of reality. His family is not exceptional. It’s a family like many others in Spain and around the world finding that industries and economies are rapidly changing. Unlike the Avatar films, where the war between nature and industry takes on a very clear literal meaning that results in physical confrontation, Alcarràs’ war is obscured. The systemic power that makes the decisions to replace farming with tech is so far beyond and out of reach of Quimet that it may as well be theoretical. Instead, the only way Quimet can fight is to carry on with his daily work. His son Roger (Albert Bosch) is the one most devoted to Quimet’s mission. He constantly vies for his father’s approval of his work in the peach orchard, going above and beyond to do the work himself at night so his father can rest his ailing back. Instead, Quimet drives him away, saying he should study.

It’s another sign of how Alcarràs features one of the best cinematic characterizations of stubbornness in recent memory. A man who does not see that the answer to what bothers him is right in front of his face. The value of traditions come from the act of passing them on to the people you love—for them to be maintained through generations. Instead, Quimet’s controlling nature and his need to fix every problem himself in the shadow of impending doom forms a frustrating barrier that amounts to a slow crash.

Technological advancements are often framed as unambiguous positives for society. However, environmentally beneficial projects available because of new tech are not without structural and cultural issues. The solar panels being installed near Quimet’s farm threaten to displace nature and people. We see cases in Alcarràs made about the solar panels bringing in more money when the peach farm’s profits are slowly dying. Local farmers’ protests erupt against the buyers, who are constantly short-changing the independent farmers in favor of big corporate farms. If, in the end, the issue is labor exploitation and small wages, would anything be solved simply by swapping out the peaches for solar panels? The corporations and executives remain the same; the business model is still one of profit for those who are already rich.

Yet, the allure of immediate higher wages for tech jobs becomes too much for people struggling to put food on the table. In The Beasts, we see this same dilemma play out with a more sinister brewing violence underneath, where poor folks in the Galicia region are much more willing to learn how to operate wind turbines than continue their traditional farming. Likewise, Quimet’s brother joins the other side and their relationship is never the same. The final shot of Alcarràs is of the farmhouse, outside of which Quimet’s youngest daughter plays with his nephews. Next to them, an excavator starts knocking down peach trees. The battle of tech versus nature happens in small increments like that, one by one, with the cumulative effect often unnoticed until it’s too late. The advancements of society may in some aspects be for good; the ways they negatively affect the most vulnerable people and the environment for our myopic idea of “progress” are often forgotten. But as we barrel towards an uncertain future filled with technology, Quimet’s stubbornness, as frustrating as it is, begins to look more like a virtue.

Soham Gadre is an entertainment and culture writer based in Washington D.C. He has written for Polygon, MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, and Film Inquiry among other publications. He has a Twitter account where he talks about movies, basketball, and food.

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