Iciar Bollain's bittersweet tale of familial and environmental activism could blossom into an arthouse crowdpleaser.
It turns out there are many more ways than one to uproot a tree in “The Olive Tree,” an earthy, quietly stirring Spanish fable that finds familial, regional and environmental grievances inseparably tangled in its branches. The third collaboration between Madrid-born helmer Iciar Bollain and Scottish screenwriter Paul Laverty — the team behind 2010’s Oscar-shortlisted “Even the Rain” — should prove their most universally appealing, grafting gentle comedy, bristling social consciousness and a salty-teared streak of family tragedy in its tale of a fiery young farmer determined to reclaim her grandfather’s beloved olive tree from foreign purchasers. Reminiscent at its most jauntily righteous of Laverty’s lighter-toned work with Ken Loach, Bollain’s latest will continue to engage fest audiences following a rapturously received premiere in Miami. In the distribution realm, “Tree”-huggers will emerge in due course.
The spirit of grassroots activism that characterized both Bollain and Laverty’s previous films, “Even the Rain” and 2011’s “Katmandu,” is present once more in “The Olive Tree” — though the narrative here surprises most when it places social and individual concerns in bittersweet conflict. Spunky heroine Alma (TV-trained actress Anna Castillo, making a confident transition to big-screen leads) turns out to be a more charismatic carrier of a cause than even she expects or intends to be. The smooth escalation of incident in Laverty’s script wryly demonstrates how mass empathy — with a little assistance from social media — can make a political quest of a personal one, though it’s not unambiguously idealistic about the effectiveness of such movements.
The sunny saffron glow of Sergi Gallardo’s widescreen lensing doesn’t go far in masking the hard times that have hit the agricultural community of Canet, in Spain’s parched Castellon province. 20-year-old Alma’s family has been lovingly producing olive oil from their ancestral grove for centuries, but the fragile economic climate has forced them into industrial poultry farming instead. Such changes are evidently painful to Alma’s proud grandfather Ramon (Manuel Cucala, a non-professional find with a storied countenance), who has lately retreated into a state of near-catatonia. Alma, however, believes his depression is rooted in a more specific loss: that of his single most treasured olive tree, a richly gnarled, thousand-year-old specimen that Alma’s estranged father Luis (Miguel Angel Aladren) sold for replanting, amid much fraught familial dispute, years before.
Beautifully played flashbacks establish the tender, intuitive bond between Alma and Ramon, without straying into saccharine territory. The tree, around which so many of Alma’s childhood memories are wound, is thus granted enough convincing symbolic value that her subsequent, heart-over-head course of action doesn’t overly strain credibility. Convinced the tree would revive Ramon’s spirit, she learns that it has been relocated to a German bank’s headquarters in Dusseldorf, where it serves a coldly ornamental function in the marbled foyer. Cue a good old-fashioned road trip, as Alma enlists her wearily acquiescent uncle Arti (a wonderful Javier Gutierrez) and a crush-nurturing co-worker, Rafa (Pep Ambros) to help her regain the precious plant — not telling them that she hasn’t even a notional strategy for doing so.
Sketchy it may be, but the plan is just romantic enough to capture the attention of fight-the-power Facebook factions, whose support inflates and complicates a family affair. “Who does she think she is — Mahatma Gandhi?” a baffled Arti sputters as the mission takes on a life of its own. Laverty’s deft script subtly satirizes the well-meaning fashionability of such millennial-generation activism, but is far from flippant about Alma’s own wishes — or about the hegemonic implications of corporations literally claiming life from another country’s soil. Some of the symbolism here is so blunt as to be nudgingly playful: A fiberglass poolside model of the Statue of Liberty, for example, provides a running visual gag that wittily encapsulates the scale of a principled struggle at once vastly impassioned and poignantly minor.
With her choppy undercut hairdo and wiry physicality, Castillo carries proceedings with just the right degree of toughness and strength of conviction, playing Alma’s vulnerability against her resilience all the while. She has a most endearingly crumpled foil in Gutierrez, who wrings the pic’s biggest laughs from Adri’s careworn bewilderment at his niece’s ideals, with a doleful undertow of knowing guilt over what has caused it. For the role of Ramon, casting director Mireia Suarez has served the film well by considering amateur locals: While he’s spryly game in his scenes with Alma’s younger self, the very skin of Cucala’s hands has a labor-shaped authenticity that can’t be forged.
Accomplished craft elements are all of a piece with the pic’s unobtrusive, summer-faded naturalism, with extra credit due to Pascal Gaigne’s lovely score, which sustains a tricky balance of lilting melancholy throughout.