Icíar Bollaín’s The Olive Tree is a familial drama whose meandering tone and rather glib message mean that it never truly takes root. Set predominantly in rural Spain, the Madrid-born director’s latest offering is a fable that relates to the importance of heritage, doing right by ones loved ones and how joys, hurt and deep sadness may pass from branch to branch and from one generation to the next. There is certainly an appeal to all audiences given its universal themes but the deep wells of emotion and resentment here, ripe for a moving tale of love, devotion and personal conflict, are tempered by a shallow, predictable script.
Nevertheless, the fiery sapling who leads the charge in The Olive Tree is Alma (played with wild, wide-eyed fervour by Anna Castillo). It was from the gnarled, bark-like, hard-working hands of her grandfather (Manuel Cucala) that the local wild child learned a love for the land and for one tree in particular among the vast family orchard. It is when the middle generation intervene – this sequence shown in flashback – and the two thousand year-old olivo is sold to a German conglomerate for a much needed cash injection to the failing family finances that the now elderly man entered a period of deep mourning.
We are led to believe that this event marked a fork in the road in Alma’s life also – a loss of innocence of sorts – as a vehement bitterness towards her father and others continues into young adulthood. A further painful admission in one scene sees Alma lament his inaction when she – as an adolescent – came to him for help when being inappropriately treated by an older co-worker. This allusion is forgotten as soon as it is suggested so though there is an untamed, ferocious charm to her character and the proverbial middle finger she throws in all directions, threads of personality and motivation are unexplained, unexplored and underdeveloped.
Why does she pull strands of her hair directly from her head? Why does she have one-night stands when her friend and colleague, Rafa (Pep Ambros), so clearly dotes on her? Her soul-destroying occupation, farming battery chickens, represents a bastardisation of the family’s traditional tilling of the land and the film does nod its head toward the changing face of European culture and the conflict of dedicated, artisanal craftsmanship and big business but again it’s hard to tell where Bollaín’s focus lies. A last ditch pilgrimage to Dusseldorf (where the tree now resides) with the assistance of Rafa and her uncle (Javier Gutierrez) sees Alma on a quest to bring it home to rekindle the failing health of her grandfather. This action, and The Olive Tree as a whole, has admirable intentions but does not offer a worthwhile remedy.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens