You can practically smell the midsummer fatigue that wafts through “Alcarràs” on the faintest and most occasional of breezes: a mixture of sweat, baked earth and ripe, plump peaches, inviting in the moment but suggestive of future spoiling. All simple seasonal pleasures are on borrowed time in Carla Simón’s lovely, bittersweet agricultural drama, and not just because winter is inevitably coming. For the large, garrulous Solé clan, who have spent every summer of their lives picking fruit from their familial orchard, this looks to be the last in that tradition, as they face imminent eviction from their patch of land in Catalonia. Yet as they squabble over their uncertain future — and plenty else besides — the sun shines and peaches droop voluptuously from endangered branches. There’s nothing for it but to complete the final harvest.
In her second feature, Catalan writer-director Carla Simón returns to the rural region that served as the backdrop to her remarkable, autobiographical debut “Summer 1993,” and the film once more benefits from her warm affinity for this alternately parched and verdant landscape. That “Alcarràs” has been granted a Competition slot at this year’s Berlinale — four years after “Summer 1993” bowed at the same festival in the far lower-profile Generation sidebar — is indicative of the global impression made by Simón’s unassuming but utterly winning debut.
Her follow-up shares and builds on many of that film’s virtues, from her subtly textured, fully inhabited evocation of place to her sure hand with non-professional actors, who this time make up the entire ensemble. A more drifting sense of narrative drive than the already mellow “Summer 1993” might make “Alcarràs” a slightly harder arthouse sell, but it confirms the strength and consistency of Simón’s directorial voice.
If “Alcarràs” isn’t as much of a memoir, it’s still rooted in Simón’s personal history, with the title referring to the small village where her family has maintained a peach farm across multiple generations. But from that native location, her latest spirals into fiction, contemplating the worst case scenario for most traditional independent farmers being crowded out by industrial development. The film balances a bristling political conscience against its tenderly observed domestic drama.
As the opening scene observes young children playing games of make-believe in the rusted shell of a vintage car — incongruous against sprawling farmland — Simón briefly wrongfoots us into thinking she has again assumed the child’s-eye perspective of her debut. As turns out, “Alcarràs” deftly hopscotches between points of view in the close but conflict-inclined Solé family. None of those is purer or more upbeat than that of six-year-old Iris (Ainet Jounou), who still sees the the farmstead, with its climbing roses and gnarled grapevines and long, inviting groves of feather-leaved peach trees, as an idyllic playground — a perception we can share via Daniela Cajías’s sun-warmed, earth-toned but not overly prettified lensing.
Would that others saw it quite so fondly. Near the outset of the film, the Solés receive word that the landowners intend to turf them out, razing the orchards to make way for a solar power plant — the devastating final blow for a livelihood that was already struggling to compete with industrial produce farming. The bombshell sends the family spiraling in different ways and directions. While grandfather Rogelio (Josep Abad) searches in vain for evidence of a long-ago gentleman’s agreement that the farmhouse belongs to him, the next generation spars over how best to face the inevitable future.
Though wily Cisco attempts to ingratiate himself with the developers, his brother-in-law Quimet lives strictly in the present tense, focusing doggedly on harvesting the summer’s remaining peaches, and enlisting all the family to help when financial constraints force him to dismiss several migrant pickers. His teenage children Roger (Albert Bosch) and Mariona (Xènia Roset) comply somewhat sullenly, hardly motivated to maintain their vanishing inheritance, but also waving off Quimet’s concerns about their education — now their only shot, as he sees it, at future security. As for his youngest, Iris, she ducks fancifully around these tensions, not fully oblivious to her parents’ agitation, but still mostly secure in her summer bliss.
Simón and co-writer Arnau Vilaró settle on a leisurely, vignette-based structure for this ostensibly deadline-driven narrative, thus accommodating the stray moments of elation and mirth that close families experience even in dire times: Quimet’s triumph in a drinking competition at the village fair, Iris’ delight in a new recorder gifted her by the tooth fairy (and her parents’ immediate regret over this choice), or a running vendetta against peach-raiding wild rabbits that culminates in a prank straight out of “The Godfather,” Catalan-style. Her actors, all cast from multiple local villages, play off each other with lively, easy candor and a palpable sense of community. Simón may have moved on from autobiography in her graceful, gradually devastating sophomore effort, but we sense many a true story told in its quiet tragedy.