London 2022

Alcarràs review – beautifully low-key story of a farming family in Catalonia

Carla Simon's follow-up to Summer 1993 is deeply empathetic and filled with wonderful performances from first-time actors

It’s often said that the best films can transport you, whether that’s to far flung lands or somewhere distant in time but, in Carla Simon’s Alcarràs, you might not be sure exactly when you’ve been taken to. Though there are a few giveaways that we’re in the present day – mostly in the fashion and a growing patch of solar panels – most of this quietly wonderful film could well take place 40 years earlier in its exploration of rural childhoods in Catalonia. It’s this clash of eras that gives Alcarràs its spark, as traditional ways of life collide head-on with the incentive- and profit-focused countryside of the present.

We follow the lives of a mid-sized and close-knit family unit – the kind where cousins might as well be siblings for how often they see each other – whose peach farm is being threatened by the local landowner. They got the land through traditional methods, a simple gentleman’s agreement between their ancestors that is now entirely void in the age of official contracts. It’s a conflict that is causing patriarch Quimet (Jordi Pujol Ducet) a dangerous amount of stress – exacerbated by the physical damage done to his body by decades of farming – but Simon often puts it to the backburner.

Using a cast of entirely non-professional actors from the Alcarràs region, Simon is more interested in simply showing us the day-to-day lives – in all their joy and frustration – of the entire family, from the aging grandparents to the little kids. With her last film, Summer 1993, Simon showed a rare gift for directing children which she puts to good use here – the scenes with Quimet’s rambunctious six-or-seven year old daughter Iris (Ainet Jounou) and her similarly aged twin cousins (who are always dressed in the same outfits) are delightful. Seeking out hiding spots and conducting bizarre rituals, they play together like there isn’t even a camera, a brilliant achievement from Simon.

Performances are excellent across the board, in fact – you wouldn’t know these were all first-time actors just by looking at them. Ducet, in particular, brings moving layers to Quimet. His anger and frustration immediately followed by quiet regret after a short-tempered outburst, which makes the moments of family tenderness feel much more real. Meanwhile, Xenia Roset and Albert Bosch impress as the older kids in the family, for whom the physical and financial stresses of the farm are starting to take their toll – they listen intently to the grown ups’ serious discussions, acting out simply because they are powerless to express themselves in any other way.

It all feels profoundly real, immersing you in this family until the simple act of the younger kids singing an out-of-key song their grandpa taught them is enough to move you to tears. Simon clearly loves and respects this cast and these characters and the area that houses them (the rugged beauty of rural Catalonia is omnipresent), crafting a low-key but deeply affecting and earnestly felt story of people getting by in a world that is, at best, indifferent to them.

Alcarràs was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022. It will be released in UK cinemas on 6 January 2023.

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