Icíar Bollaín and Paul Laverty, a tight-knit duo with close links to Ken Loach, respectively direct and write the screenplay of The Olive Tree (★★★★, cert 15, 99 mins) – a tear-impelling study of the bonds forged between grandfather and granddaughter.
At once a look at the Iberian economic crisis and the quick-fix loans that Spanish farmers sought to buy into the financial boom – and which left their initial businesses bankrupt – and a reflection on the inferiority complex that Spain feels in comparison to Germany, the tale centres on a wilful young woman, Alma (Anna Castillo), who embarks on a leap of faith to do the one thing that will make her grandfather Ramón (Manuel Cucala) happy.
Back in Alma’s youth, her unscrupulous father Luis and uncle Alcachofa (Javier Gutiérez) are raising funds to trick out a beachside bar as a family investment. The only block to their plans is the necessary kickback to the town’s mayor. To meet these needs, Luis gets grandfather Ramón to part with the one thing he can’t go without: his millenary olive tree. In a poignant scene, we witness the child Alma climb to the top of the olive tree as it is about to be bulldozed. The bond between granddaughter and her gnarled old “monster” (its tangling roots are thought to resemble one) are reflected in her bond for her grandfather as he lifts her from the tree, and the dastardly olive tree exploiters have their way.
Fast-forward a decade, and Alma’s homestead has had a change of use from the high-end olive oil that her grandfather used to make to a battery hen farm. Her grandfather has Alzheimer’s and begins to refuse food. In desperation, Alma finds the olive tree nursery where the tree was dispatched, whereupon her search leads her to Düsseldorf. She summarily hoodwinks a colleague Rafa (Pep Ambròs) and her uncle to go with her, on the pretext that a kindly church minister owns the tree in Düsseldorf and has agreed to return it. “Is he serious? He’s German, he’s a minister, and he’s a Protestant. You don’t get much more serious than that,” she says.
Paul Laverty, the screenwriter (who wrote The Wind That Shakes the Barley), creates an excellent pacing, through realistic interactions as the road movie progresses. It’s remarkable as a film, with wholehearted imagery at its centre and an emphatic message which is part family-based, state-of-the-nation address, but doesn’t become cheesy or cringe-making.
At the bottom of its sincere heart, this is a film about a girl who never got the emotional support she needed from her dad, and leans to her grandfather instead, and will then go to the ends of the earth to protect him.
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