The storyline is simple enough: Alma, convinced her grandfather’s descent into depression and dementia is connected to the selling off by his children of his beloved 2,000 year old olive tree, embarks on a campaign to get it back. This involves a trip in a flatbed truck across eastern Spain to Dusseldorf, where a German energy company has installed it in its marble foyer to help ‘greenwash’ its environmentally destructive activities.
The tree was sold to help the family start a now defunct restaurant business, specifically to bribe the local mayor to allow it to be built near the beach. It’s no coincidence that the film’s set in Valencia province, where the Popular Party regional administration has been under investigation for corruption for years.
The restaurant going bust symbolises what has happened to Spain since the global crash. You might read the film as an allegory on the rise of Podemos where a younger generation tries to tackle the hangover of Spain’s ‘get rich quick’ years.
But it’s not only a story of the different generations. All the dynamic characters in the film - Alma, her resourceful friends and the German environmental activists she teams up with - are female.
“Charming”, “heart-warming”, “soulful” and “gentle” seems to be the consensus verdict of the critics. But what came through most strongly for me were Paul Laverty’s trademark humour and anger, deployed alternately to great emotional effect. It’s a story about how a family has been mercilessly ripped off by predatory capitalism, all the more powerful for the fact that this enemy has no human face in the film. And you won’t see many movies where a replica Statue of Liberty is smashed to pieces with such rage, another characteristic Laverty flourish.
The Olive Tree is brilliantly directed by Iciar Bollain. The two previously collaborated on 2010’s award-winning Even the Rain, another feature combining great humour and class struggle, in which local people rise up against the privatisation of the water supply in Bolivia, while a film crew are shooting a movie about Christopher Columbus. Bollain extracts a superb performance from 23 year old Anna Castillo as Alma, the wily young woman who tricks her accomplices into helping her rescue her grandfather’s olive tree.
Look out for this film. It won’t have a big run in any of the major chains, so you may want to persuade your local indy cinema to get it. Otherwise a DVD will be out soon.