A broken family leads a young woman on a mission to repair it in Icíar Bollaín’s wonderfully heartfelt and enjoyable 2016 drama The Olive Tree.
Alma (Anna Castillo) is the adult daughter of Spanish chicken farmer Luis (Miguel Angel Aladren). Her grandfather – Luis’ father – has lived a hollow, silent life since his sons went behind his back and sold the family’s 2,000-year-old olive tree for 30,000 euros. With her grandfather’s health waning, Alma resolves to track down and bring the missing tree home.
The Olive Tree is based on a very real phenomenon in Europe: the rich, seeking a fascinating status symbol for their courtyards or gardens, purchase and transplant ancient olive trees from poor regions of Spain and Italy. In the case of Bollaín’s film, it takes on a deeply personal dimension. A single tree has been cared for and passed down from generation to generation; Alma’s grandfather Ramon was taught how to tend to the tree by his father, and he in turn has taught Luis and Alma. He expected Alma to teach her children in the future, but when Luis and his brother Chofa (Javier Gutiérrez) secretly sell off the tree to pay off growing family debts it marks an emotional betrayal from which Ramon has not recovered. Now he waits to die, frail and silent, endlessly frustrating his children who want nothing more than to move on and live their lives. Alma, who has shared a close relationship with Ramon her whole life, strikes on the plan to somehow find his tree, reunite it with him, and save both his life and her family’s future.
While family drama provides the foreground of the film, its background is dominated by talk of a changing Europe and the struggling fortunes of the Spanish economy against regional powerhouses such as Germany and France. As the film plays out, more detail is exposed of the family’s ill-fated financial schemes and failures. What initially seems a one-sided conflict expands and becomes more rounded. Characters that seemed blindly cruel turn out to have more complex motivations that at first appeared.
Central to the film is Alma: idealistic and impulsive, but often lacking in properly thought-out plans and strategies. She is played brilliantly by Anna Castillo; this was her first major film role following a career on Spanish television, and she enriches her character with a deeply human and sympathetic portrayal. Also impressive are Pep Ambròs as Rafa, a “will they, won’t they” love interest, and Javier Gutiérrez as Alma’s uncle Chofa – a little younger than her father, and with a strong older brother-style dynamic. Gutiérrez in particular delivers remarkable work, blending humour with an underlying dramatic power. Much of the film exists as a road movie featuring these three, and their mutual chemistry make it something of a delight.
A clean, original storyline, good acting, a strong visual sense of the Spanish countryside all combine to make The Olive Tree a superb experience. It’s a most rewarding stand-out.