Berlin Review: Golden Bear Winner Alcarrás From Director Carla Simon

The Sole family grows peaches. Round white peaches ripen first; then the flat white peaches that supermarkets like; then yellow cling peaches. Their farmhouse is surrounded by the plantation they have tended for three generations, promised to them in perpetuity by the current owner’s great-grandparents during the Civil War. Memories are long in their corner of Catalonia. Nobody remembers a time before peaches. Harvesting determines the rhythm of their rumbustious family life. When the fruit ripens, it’s all hands on deck.

Director Carla Simon, whose radiant film Alcarrás has just won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, grew up in the region of Catalonia where this film is set: Alcarrás is the name of the nearest village. Her own uncles grow peaches; the film glows not only with sunshine and her love of this country and its ways, but real, hard knowledge of how farming as a business is being daily eroded.

As the fruit hangs heavy from the trees and African workers start arriving, the Soles are faced with losing their livelihood. The current owner Joachim Pinyol (Jacob Diarte), a city-dweller who likes to affect a Stetson hat, has realized he can make more money from the land installing fields of solar panels. Forget that long-ago handshake; barring a miracle, this summer will be the family’s last season. Agribusiness, supermarkets and the utility company people in their orange uniforms will finally have inherited the Earth.

Grandpa (Josep Abad) is as perplexed as he is devastated. His own grandfather hid Pinyol’s great-grandfather in the basement during the war years; how can this no longer matter? His son Quimet (Jordy Pujol Dolcet), who is literally breaking his back running the farm, doesn’t know where to direct his fury: to his father, to the system eating them alive, or to the myriad things that start to annoy him. Of course he knows nobody signed agreements in the 1930s, but if only they had!

His wife (Anna Otin), as the mainstay of the household, tries to be patient as his anxiety rises, his temper shortens and he quarrels with one member of the family after another. Cisco (Carles Cabós), married to his sister Nati (Montse Oró), slips away from the harvest to see if he can get a job with the solar panel company, opening a rift in the family — not least because he is the only person who can fix the tractor.

A second sister Gloria (Berta Pipo), visiting from Barcelona, urges Quimet to appreciate how he is hurting his beloved family; she is duly exiled. Son Roger (Albert Bosch) tries desperately to help by working harder than ever, but his agitated father growls at him to put more time into the schoolwork. Teenage daughter Mariona (Xenia Roset) cannot bear seeing the clan so troubled. She retreats into herself, her face dark. Only the smallest children remain effervescent, stealing peach crates to build dens and getting tangled in agricultural machinery. “Disaster follows you,” Quimet chides his daughter Iris (Ainet Jounou) as he rescues her little cousin from the scoop of a digger she has managed to activate.

Nobody here is an actor. They are all locals who spoke the specific regional dialect of Catalan and knew the land. For director Simon, that authenticity was what mattered. That she has created such complex, conflicted characters and won such marvelous performances from amateurs is a testament to her powers of empathy. The same spirit informs Daniela Cajias’ camera as it follows and frames them; it is as if there is a kinship that binds not only the family we see on film – none of whom are actually related – but also those in front of the camera with those behind it.

It is only on reflection that you realize what a counterpoint to conventional narrative Simon and her co-writer Arnau Vilaro have constructed. Everything here happens in the moment. There is no hope that this family can stage a fight against the greater powers set to crush them (let alone win, as they would in a Hollywood film) because they are just too busy. Instead, Simon builds her film as a series of quarrels, family barbecues and long working days. There is barely even any music, except when someone sings (never well, but always with feeling). To impose a mood with swelling violins would smack of fakery. There will be none of that here. Above all, Alcarrás is for real.

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