Each film festival season brings with it at least one title that charms with the charisma of its child actors. Carla Simón’s Alcarràs, which comes to the New York Film Festival after a Golden Bear-winning run at the Berlinale, dares you not to fall in love with the tenacious, somewhat pigheaded young Iris (Ainet Jounou), the ringleader of a playgroup made up of her cousins. Through the eyes of a child, the unforgiving heat and rodent-ridden farmland of Alcarràs, a town in western Catalonia, transforms into a playground. It is unfathomable to Iris that the migrant workers on her family’s orchards are not there to be her friends, or that the peach pallets serve a purpose beyond letting her build a fort. In the film’s opening scene, the owners of the farm endeavor to end Iris’s childhood by repossessing an abandoned car that she and her cousins, Pau and Pere (Isaac and Joel Rovira), use as a rocket ship. But Iris will not let the landowners strip her of her innocence—not even as they threaten her family’s survival.
Alcarràs reads like a manifesto against the ruling class without drowning its audience in this reminder; channeling social commentary through the experiences of children, including Iris’s teenage siblings Mariona (Xènia Roset) and Roger (Albert Bosch), allows Simón and co-screenwriter Arnau Vilaró to keep their film’s feet planted on the ground. The Solé family, headed by aging patriarch Rogelio (Josep Abad) and his temperamental son Quimet (Jordi Pujol Dolcet), is facing eviction from Joaquín Pinyol (Jacob Diarte), the owner of the land they have long farmed. This conundrum flabbergasts Rogelio and other members of the family: The relationship between the Solés and the Pinyols goes back generations, and the working-class Solés gave shelter to the Pinyols during the Spanish Civil War, when mobs targeted landowners. What makes a person go back on their word, or forget the saving grace of another? Why isn’t the choice to look out for your fellow man enough to ensure security and a future, Rogelio wonders?
But in Alcarràs, nothing is enough: not the crop yield, not the money that agriculture companies pay the local farmers, and not the gentleman’s agreement between Rogelio and the Pinyols. This scarcity of both material wealth and goods and brotherly cooperation prompts members of the Solé family to safeguard their survival by other means–Roger attempts to covertly grow marijuana with his uncle Cisco (Carles Cabós), while Cisco and his wife Nati (Montse Oró), Quimet’s sister, agree to install solar panels on their orchard at Pinyol’s insistence. Mariona, meanwhile, tries to hold onto her youth by choreographing a dance routine with friends for an upcoming festival, but soon finds herself working the harvest when her family cannot afford to pay others.
Quimet storms through the film, angry at Pinyol for evicting his family, at his father for not signing a proper contract to work the land, and at Cisco for agreeing to install solar panels. His anger is infectious, seeping into the groundwater until son resents father, siblings lash out and can only tolerate each other when inebriated, and an elderly patriarch finds himself abandoned by the family he has sought to protect. The grudges that each sibling holds are distractions from the common problem they find in Pinyol, allowing them to blame each other for their predicament rather than shifting the blame to the bourgeoisie. When Cisco thus agrees to install the solar panels, his decision is not just a slight against his brother-in-law, but a betrayal of his class.
A lesser film would interrupt the melody of the Solé family’s everyday life to point out that Pinyol is tearing them apart, that they should band together in the face of opposition. As the film chugs along, Pinyol’s antagonism wanes; Quimet’s restlessness and machismo-infused pride, his stubborn sense of individualism and patriarchal responsibility, is enough to spark fear in anyone who catches his eye. The family does not need an outside force to destroy itself—they’ll do it just fine on their own.
Simón’s film tackles sociopolitical issues without patronizing her audience, allowing viewers to form their own conclusions about the family members, their livelihoods, and the future of Alcarràs itself. It inspires conversations about the role of art within social praxis, echoing classics of Italian neorealism: It was shot on location, the sweeping vistas of the region captured by cinematographer Daniela Cajías; its story explicates a societal problem through the lens of a working-class family; and its ensemble is made up of non-professional actors from the Lleida province, including Pujol Dolcet, who was once a farmer. Alcarràs emulates neorealistic gems like Giuseppe De Santis’s Bitter Rice, cementing Spain’s place in this historic genre.
Alcarràs and Simón have already made history with their Berlinale win—it was the first film in the Catalan language to earn the Golden Bear. In 2017, Spain selected Simón’s feature debut, Summer 1993, as their entry for Best International Feature at the Academy Awards; the semiautobiographical drama, also in Catalan, was inspired by Simón’s childhood as an orphan after both her parents passed due to complications of HIV/AIDS. Spain has named Alcarràs their entry for Best International Feature at the 2023 Awards, further solidifying Simón’s status as the nation’s premier new filmmaker. As she is only 35 years old, audiences will be privileged to watch Simón’s oeuvre grow for years to come.
This review is from the 2022 New York Film Festival. Alcarràs has been selected by Spain as its International Feature Film Oscar submission for the 95th Academy Awards.