The Olive Tree (or El Olivo as it’s known in its native Spanish) is director Icíar Bollaín’s third collaboration with the writer and long-term screenwriting partner of Ken Loach, Paul Laverty. It is an aesthetically beautiful, heartfelt and spiritual film that explores the notions of hope, tradition, history and economic decline.
Energetic newcomer Anna Castillo stars as Alma, a fierce and charismatic twenty-year-old who works on a chicken farm in the town of Canet in the region of Castellón on the East Coast of Spain. In times of prosperity, generations of her family possessed an olive grove with a remarkable millenary olive tree, planted there during roman times. This gnarled two thousand year old beauty once helped form the profound and loving bond between the pre-pubescent Alma and her grandfather Ramon; the pair respected it, loved it, and appreciated its history together. But when the economic crisis hit Europe, Luis, Alma’s father and Ramon’s son, sold the eponymous tree against his own father’s wishes and Ramon hasn’t spoken a word to anyone since that fateful day. Now with both his mental and physical health deteriorating, Alma becomes convinced that the only thing that will bring her grandfather back is the return of the millenarian olive tree they both feel such an intrinsic connection to.
Discovering that the tree now sits resplendent in the reception of a multinational based in Dusseldorf, the determined Alma hatches an absurd and improbable plan to travel to Germany and somehow reclaim the tree from its new owners before bringing it back to its original place in the family olive grove. Recruited for this heroic but somewhat quixotic endeavour are her uncle, Alcachofa, and their easy going friend Rafa, who is secretly in love with Alma. Hiring a truck for half a million euros is a big deal, especially with neither man fully aware of what they’ve let themselves in for – Alma having neglected to tell them that the return of the tree is far from a done deal. As they trek along the roads of Europe, Alma seeks help via the inroads of social network platforms to successfully complete the mission she has set herself to secure the last chance of contentment for her ailing grandfather.
The Olive Tree is primarily a story about the hurt that has been doled out upon Spain ever since the recession. The film dares to ask the question of just how the generation of Spaniards coming of age now are coping with the after effects of the global economic decline in a country – and countryside – that has been continually sold, resold and built upon, and exactly what kind of future is it that these twentysomethings will have for themselves and their country?
This ruinous hurt is also personified by Alma, a character whose best intentions are doomed to create more hurt and whose one certainty – the last vestige of a better time – her grandfather, is fading fast, taking with him all the traditions she so respects. This torment is occasionally manifested by Alma’s trichotillomania (the impulse control disorder that sees sufferers possess an uncontrollable desire to pull their own hair out) which serves to present the dichotomy in her character – she is at once both powerful and vulnerable, and Castillo performs these complexities brilliantly, delivering a fully rounded characterisation.
The film also offers a contrast between the experiences of the recession between the European countries. The rustic regions of Spain lie in ruins and despondency, its inhabitants are sad-eyed by the loss of their history and traditions, and by the betrayals they feel the crash gave them – this is best depicted by Alcachofa, a victim of events who is prone to exasperation and impulsive comic actions that are reminiscent of some of the humour found in Laverty’s work with Loach. In comparison to the decline seen in Spain, Germany is depicted as efficient, progressive and clinical in its business acumen. To the company in Dusseldorf, the tree they purchased does not represent life or history in the way it does for Alma and her family, because history is not something they require or have need of. To them, it is little more than a striking piece of ‘furniture’ housed in their lobby, and the inspiration behind the business logo that adorns their website and headed notepaper.
Though The Olive Tree may be a Spanish film specifically about the land itself, it is primarily a film whose message is utterly universal. What is said here about emotions, relationships and our hopes and fears transcend any language and all borders.