A poignant family drama, a rhythmic road movie, an alluring fable with undertones and symbols that punctuate a heart-warming modern metaphor, Icíar Bollaín’s multi-faceted film The Olive Tree is a tale rooted deep in cinematic magic.
One of the many charms of The Olive Tree is in the astonishing number of ways in which this film can be enjoyed. On the on hand it is a story about Alma (Anna Castillo) and her love for her dying grandfather (Manuel Cucala) as she sets out on an ill-conceived voyage to recover his beloved olive tree which his family uprooted and sold against his will 12 years prior. But to pigeonhole The Olive Tree as a film solely about this relationship and the quest to retrieve a tree, which perhaps may mend a broken family in the process, would be doing a disservice to the wonderful script penned by frequent Ken Loach collaborator Paul Laverty.
The Oliver Tree is a powerful parable, which uses these characters as a window into the devastation caused by 8 years of the excruciating recession caused by the 2008 financial crisis. The symbolism and subtle commentary incorporated into the story is an extremely rewarding thing to dissect and unpack. There is something that resonates deeply in the parallels between how Alma executes her mission, lying, without a plan, without much money, “borrowing” a truck worth half a million that is way beyond her financial means and setting off with her uncle (Javier Gutiérrez) and his colleague to Germany. An allegory that draws striking similarities with the reckless attitude that caused the financial crash in the first place.
All the poetic imagery and hidden messages that are buried deep within the olive tree would be wasted without a story and characters fully developed in their own right to allow it to flourish. Thankfully, The Olive Tree has this in abundance. Alma is, fierce, powerful, fragile and self-destructive. She is a compelling and complicated character whose motivations seem both noble and completely inconsiderate in equal measure. Following a protagonist whose quest produces such mixed emotions in the audience is a joy to watch and I much prefer following flawed characters on a journey rather than paragons of virtue, so it was a most welcomed approach. Javier Gutiérrez as Alma’s uncle Alcachofa was also a multi-layered character who was a joy to behold; Gutiérrez tows the line between tragedy and comedy beautifully and it is his performance in many ways that is the emotional heart of the story. His interactions with Alma during the trip to recover the olive tree are simply road movie dynamics at its very best. The characters within the story, no matter how limited their screen time, also leave an impactful impression and add to the story in meaningful ways. My only exception to that statement is a storyline involving German law students which slightly broke up the pacing on the road trip and felt like unneeded exposition at times.
The Olive Tree is a profound heartfelt story penned by one of the best character writers there is, Paul Laverty. It is filled with sincere subtext and an undercurrent of meaningful discourse that makes this film work on a multitude of levels.
Originally published on March 15, 2017 for HeyUGuys.
Director: Icíar Bollaín
Writer: Paul Laverty
Cast: Anna Castillo, Javier Gutiérrez, Pep Ambròs and Manuel Cucalar