Director: Icíar Bollaín
Cast: Anna Castillo, Javier Gutiérrez, Pep Ambròs
Watch The Olive Tree online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Curzon Home Cinema / Prime Video (Buy/Rent)
This charming family drama-slash-road movie marks the seventh feature from Spanish actress-turned-director Iciar Bollain and her third collaboration with her partner, screenwriter Paul Laverty, who wrote I, Daniel Blake. Invested with the warmth and fighting spirit of a classic Ealing comedy, The Olive Tree deftly blends social issues, character comedy and family drama to winning effect.
TV actress Anna Castillo stars as Alma, a young woman from Spain’s Castellon province, whose farming family have been forced by economic circumstances to abandon their tradition of olive oil production in favour of mass poultry farming. The move has devastated her elderly grandfather (non-professional Manuel Cucala), who has retreated into himself, perhaps as a result of (undiagnosed) dementia, but perhaps also because the family sold off his beloved 2,000 year-old olive tree and uprooted it against his will.
When Alma discovers that the tree was bought by a German energy company (who placed it in their lobby and adopted it as their logo), she becomes convinced that the tree’s return will restore her grandfather to his former self, so she concocts a story about a church in Dusseldorf, who are willing to return the tree if they will come and collect it. After persuading her hot-tempered uncle Arti (Marshland’s Javier Gutierrez) and smitten co-worker Rafa (Pep Ambros) to borrow their boss’ flatbed truck and drive her to Dusseldorf, Alma sets off on her quest, without actually having a concrete plan for what to do when she gets there.
With her touchingly open face and choppy, undercut hair-do, Castillo invests Alma with an impassioned earnestness that makes her extremely endearing, despite the widespread deception she’s pulling off in order to achieve her goal. There’s also terrific comic support from Gutierrez, whose frequent bouts of rage are largely played for laughs (his comical swearing loses a certain something in translation). Surrounded by two such strong performances, Ambros does well to hold his own, effectively providing a calming anchor between the two.
Laverty’s gentle screenplay addresses a number of different social issues, from the impact of a devastating economic situation in Spain (the significance of the role played by Germany in the film won’t be lost on local audiences) to the widening of the generation gap and the need for understanding and compassion in business relationships. However, he’s also not above a bit of amusing, in-your-face symbolism for comedic effect, as illustrated by the giant Statue of Liberty replica that Arti steals from a rich man who owes him money and installs on the back of the truck.
Bollain maintains strong control of the tone throughout, delivering plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but never losing sight of the underlying sadness or descending into syrupy sentimentality. In particular, she makes striking use of flashbacks, in which the younger Alma (a well cast Inés Ruiz) interacts with her grandfather, painting an extremely moving portrait of their relationship, the loss of which resonates throughout the film.
On top of that, Sergi Gallardo’s widescreen cinematography makes strong use of the Spanish landscapes, while Pascal Gaigne’s orchestral score underlines the gentleness that forms the core of the film. This is an impressively directed and superbly acted family drama that’s both moving and laugh-out-loud funny. Recommended.
The Olive Tree is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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