Winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale, Carla Simón’s “Alcarràs” shares its name with the tiny Catalonian town where her parents grow peaches, and — much like her nostalgically effervescent debut, “Summer 1993” — the title proves instructive. For all of the memorable characters who scramble around Simón’s fiercely unsentimental portrait of a family on the brink of losing their farm (along with the shared identity that has rooted them to its soil since before the Spanish Civil War), this is at heart a story about the land on which it’s set. It’s a buzzing and vibrant ensemble drama whose unruly cast pulls our focus in a dozen different directions at once, but also one that always returns our attention to the earth shifting under their feet, and in turn to the question of who they will become once they’re forced away from it.
As with most of the truly valuable things in this world, the Solé family’s traditions seem permanent right until the moment they’re snatched away forever. In “Alcarràs,” change first rears its head in the form of a tractor that roars out of the clear blue sky and snatches up the abandoned Volkswagen in which six-year-old Iris (Ainet Jounou, anchoring a cast of local actors) and her siblings were playing just a few minutes earlier — the kids pretending the old rust-bucket was actually a spaceship flying too close to the sun.
It happens that fast: One minute, the idea of leaving the farm is so inconceivable that young Iris can’t even imagine living anywhere else on Earth, and the next her sweet but shambly grandfather Rogelio (Josep Abad) is reading an eviction notice as his adult son Quimet (Jordi Pujol Dolcet) fumes at his father for never getting the land rights in writing. The farm belongs to a wealthy family who offered it to the Solés in gratitude for protecting them during the war, but the latest generation of Pinyols doesn’t feel compelled to honor that gentleman’s agreement — not when big agriculture has made small farms unsustainable and forced the price of fruit so low that Joaquim Pinyol (Jacob Diarte) has decided to dig up his trees altogether. He blithely assumes that the Solés will be happy to exchange peaches for solar panels and do half the work for twice the profit for however long that arrangement might last, but it can be hard for someone with two houses to appreciate the emotional violence of disrupting a family that’s “always” been defined by a single home.
Driven less by plot than sense of place, “Alcarràs” draws its sucker-punch of shuddering power from the ambient details that lend that home its history. Daniela Cajías’ observational camera moves around the farm with the natural warmth of a summer breeze, so happy to drink up the late afternoon sunshine and trace the shadows that whatever the film’s characters are doing in these frames can often seem incidental.
With the exception of a few squabbles throughout and a bitterly futile protest towards the end, no individual scene in this movie is more important than the ripe vitality cultivated between them: the seasonal rhythms of a farm in motion; the squabbling cadence of town gossip (something about a blender?); the anachronistic sounds of modern Europop as the wind carries them down from the hill where Quimet’s adolescent daughter is rehearsing her dance routine for the village fair.
Storylines emerge, most of them reflecting a difference of opinion as to how the Solé family should move forward. Quimet strains for a solution even after his back gives out, determined to keep his all-too-capable teenage son focused on school instead of extracurricular ways of earning money. His brother-in-law Cisco (Carles Cabós), less connected to the past and less inflexible about the future, only increases the tension by ingratiating himself with the Pinyols.
Of course, no one belongs to the farm as much as the Solé’s aloof family patriarch — he has a first-hand appreciation for how the Pinyols are betraying the same kindness the Solés once showed them — but even the kids seem more agitated and unsettled by the prospect of losing it. Simón’s observational remove and general disinterest in sentimentality makes it hard to know if Rogelio is wracked with guilt for not securing his legacy, or if he’s simply lived long enough to see “forever” turn into a false promise. Either way, his quiet presence galvanizes the heartsick remorse of an unhurried film that often feels at risk of fraying apart, and none of the more panicked action in “Alcarràs” hits with quite the same force as the wordless shot of Rogelio by himself under a peach tree and enjoying its shade while he still can.
That indelible image speaks to the power of a bittersweet movie that’s most poignant when dwelling on its characters’ powerlessness; Simón ends “Alcarràs” with a walloping one-two punch that seems to come out of nowhere while also confirming that this story couldn’t have ended any other way. Her film is an elegy for a way of life that has been losing its grip since before the latest generation of the Solé family was born, and it pays tribute to that tradition with a plaintive grace that reaffirms cinema’s unique ability to return the past to the present, and surrender the present to the past. Sometimes the film is so unhurried that it seems like it will last forever, but — as at the end of any magical summer — it ultimately leaves you wondering where all of the time went.
“Alcarràs” premiered at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.