The Olive Tree is a remarkable masterpiece by the internationally acclaimed director Icíar Bollaín – a spiritually tranquil journey exploring the significance of sentimental history, and what we, humans, are willing to do to recover the past, and all this with considerable reflection on contemporary environmental issues.
I am going to be honest with you, dear reader – firstly, I did not expect to personally enjoy this film; I have studied Bollaín’s Even The Rain (2010), and was not intensely fond of it. Sure, the execution of the latter was splendid, yet it was an uncomfortable watch – I found it hard to sympathise with the characters, and their actions. Thus I was rather prejudiced. Now secondly, since I have always had the tendency to contradict myself – I might be one of the most subjective people to review The Olive Tree…because I absolutely loved it, not necessarily for formal elements that I should praise as a film critic, but mostly because it spoke to me on personal levels. This claim is in desperate need of some elaboration – I lived in Spain for a couple of years and grew to love it beyond words; I did a course on Contemporary Spanish Cinema and I came to understand the psychology of it; and last but not least, I am utterly and undeniably sentimental when it comes to family possessions. This contextual mumbling might seem rather absurd and pointless, but I cried for half an hour about a 2000 old olive tree that Alma tried to get back for her grandfather…and for herself. How audience receives what is shown to them is largely dependent on their personality, and the so-called ‘true meaning’ of a creative work always varies between individuals – the role of the author becomes ambiguous as the lines of a specific meaning of a work fade; so the reception of The Olive Tree depends on the audience’s identity (historical context, experiences, personality). Thus I believe that half of the screening room will sob, and the other will be deep in Instagram’s discovery feed – because essentially it is just a road movie about a stubbornly spirited young woman trying to retrieve an old (family)tree… It is slow paced, and not cinematically extraordinary. But the meanings that we take out from this simple concept are what will eventually make the film memorable amongst art-house lovers (and others, too, I am not attempting to exclude).
Alma is the young protagonist, with a particularly funky hippy-ish haircut, of The Olive Tree. She reminds me of an older Ana from The Spirit of the Beehive, or Raise Ravens in her deep gaze and her anchored wilfulness; but of course in a contemporary, global setting, which transforms her perception of reality. Alma is not attempting to understand her surrounding world, she has already gone beyond that level – she has a better grasp of it than her father, and uncle, by comprehending the importance of the past (the past here being the old olive tree). She is attempting what most of us have tried, or have dreamed of – recovering the incomprehensible past, making amends for it. The olive tree, to her, symbolises her grandfather, who played a leading role in her childhood. He stopped talking when his children (including Alma’s father) decided to sell his beloved 2000 years old olive tree, that to him embodied history itself, to receive money to open a restaurant. By the present day, pretty much everything had gone downhill – the restaurant was out of business, the grandfather had stopped eating, and the family was working from daylight to nightfall to earn a living. Alma represents modernity in her attempts to preserve what is gone, and her haphazard journey to Dusseldorf is a prime example of such.
The attempted resuscitation of a sentimental past possession is a way to restore a life as it used to be. Is this a carefully hidden implication towards Spain’s ‘pact of forgetting’ that was formed after the end of Franco’s regime? Possibly. Or it could just as well be an over-interpretation; which makes a good example of what I mentioned earlier on about the audience creating personal meanings, which sometimes can be out of the author’s control. But if the notion is true, then it gracefully implicates towards intellectual growth of the new generations that can face the past mistakes, and spontaneously attempt to fix them. Alma’s attempt of fixing the wrong, however, ended up suggesting another, more explicit and definitely contemporary, issue that Bollaín reflects on in The Olive Tree – a conflict between the corrupted corporation and the familial individual(s) – the collision of public and private that results in a power struggle, and ends in the triumph of the faceless, heartless entity that can hide behind their financial status. I believe it is not a spoiler to tell that the latter is not Alma, nor his uncle, or his friend Rafa – it is a large German company that had bought the tree, and now chose to hide behind glass walls…a capitalist antagonist. The inclusion of such issue makes the film a tale of environmental activism, telling a story of many through one. A story of forests through a story of a tree. Unlike the large German company, Alma’s family eventually understands the importance of their tree – indeed, like the grandfather said, that tree carries history of the land; the company, however, does not magically end their environmentally catastrophic actions (that we can see footage of in small pieces throughout the film); but on a small scale, even if they did not ever find out, they were defeated. Alma climbed the tree, as if she was still 8 years-old, and got something almost as valuable as the colossal tree – she got a chance to start a new history, grow a new family tree.
Dir: Icíar Bollaín
Scr: Paul Laverty
Cast: Anna Castillo, Javier Gutiérrez, Pep Ambròs
Prd: Morena Films
DOP: Sergei Gallardo
Music: Pascal Gaigne
Country: Spain, Germany
Run Time: 100 min
Out in UK on 17th of March