Icíar Bollaín’s The Olive Tree – written by her partner Paul Laverty – is a poignant and personal account of determination. This Spanish social realist piece offers all the hallmarks of the Ken Loach collaborator’s back catalogue; such as his scripts for the Palme d’Or-winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and most recently I, Daniel Blake, replacing world-worn council estates with sun-kissed, foliage-rich landscapes. Whilst sentimentality and on-the-nose symbolism softens the sting, its representation of country-specific issues, which in turn lend reflection to our current global climate, are still effective and thoughtful.
Essentially a think piece for environmental issues, and corporatisation, Bollaín’s film follows headstrong Alma (Breakout Goya winner Anna Castillo), the wilful youngest member of her clan, who embarks on a voyage from the Spanish East Coast to Germany to retain a priceless family heirloom – an ancient olive tree, precious to her ailing grandfather – who has been reduced to agonising silence by Alzheimer’s. Once a vibrant, impassioned man, who loved nothing more than to spend quality time with his granddaughter at the foot of the tree; teaching her the family olive business, and rendering her admiration for the “monster” face which is weathered into the bark, Alma now faces daily battles with her elders and siblings, who all see him (Manuel Cucala) as little more than a burden.
The tree is soon sold, much to young Alma’s dismay, and is located at a swanky energy conservation company in Düsseldorf many years later. Hatching a threadbare plot to bring it home, she invents a pretext to persuade her good-natured uncle Arti (Javier Gutiérrez), and doe-eyed colleague Rafa (Pep Ambròs) to make a road trip with her to fetch it, desperately attempting to whip up a social media campaign as they journey.
Aesthetically, The Olive Tree is an accomplished work. Sergi Gallardo’s cinematography is lensed with radiant intent; warming colours entice, whilst sprawling open spaces – alive with natural potential – feel both grand and intimate simultaneously. Pascal Gaigne’s tingling score, swirling with gentle keys, is also a thing of beauty. Bollaín shoots with a reflective intent to her 2010 drama Even the Rain (also penned by Laverty); holding tight focus on character, by letting her subjects drive proceedings, even when the overwhelming influence of Mother Nature commands. Laverty’s screenplay, which has been translated into Spanish, rings true for the most part.
Like with all of his Loach properties, the finest moments arrive during domestic exchanges. Energies are high, emotions are raw. A sequence in which Alma is convinced she hears her grandfather mutter – he actually just lets out a painful sigh – is particularly compelling. Our can-do, no-nonsense heroine reduced to a scratched record of sorrow as she sings their childhood song, peppered with tears, in the desperate hope that the man who means most is still somewhere inside the fading façade.
Bollaín’s intentions to provide a contrast between the old and the new are admirable. The rusticity of her story, and the manner in which it is captured, showcases the importance of heritage and community; primary values represented by the tree, and all it has provided for the generational family. The removal is more than just roots pulled from dirt; rather the collapse of an empire, the death of a beloved member. The symbology here works brilliantly, but in other cases, a little more clunky. As the trio embark on their road trip, a garish Statue of Liberty ends up coming along for the ride, and it is not at all subtle. Also, Alma has a tendency for self-harm – yanking her hair, slapping her head – which does quite frankly nothing for her characterisation, rather feeling like a throwaway device for flash-in-the-pan drama.
Still, commentary on a changing Europe – especially a economically forlorn Spain – is assured, and the finite cluster of textured characters give The Olive Tree an unmistakably sincerity. It is a hopeful film, one which appreciates the past, and how lessons learnt can help mould the future. Alma’s quest to retain the tree is purely emotional, but Bollaín and Laverty ensure the voyage underpins the importance of conservation and regeneration, too.
The Olive Tree opens in select UK cinemas on Friday, 17th March.