The Olive Tree (El olivo)

Spain (2016) Dir. Icíar Bollaín

It is hard to understand the true sentimental value something has to a person, no matter how ridiculous the item in question may seem to us, but it is often in our best interests as human beings to respect this and find a way to work around it. If not, the result could one day be catastrophic.

Alma (Anna Castillo) is a 20 year-old woman working on her family’s chicken farm in Canet, Province of Castellón, that once was profitable supplier of olive oil until the country’s fragile economy forced the switch to poultry. Against the wishes of Alma and her grandfather Ramon (Manuel Cucala), the thousand year-old olive tree was sold for replanting by Alma’s father Luis (Miguel Angel Aladren), causing a rift in the family.

Now an elderly a widower, Ramon’s depression has driven him to stop speaking. Alma believes Ramon is missing the olive tree and proposes to hunt it down and return it to the farm. She tracks it down in Dusseldorf, Germany and convinces her uncle Arti (Javier Gutierrez) and co-worker, Rafa (Pep Ambros) to drive her to collect the tree – except Alma hasn’t told them the whole truth about the trip.

The recurring motif in the modest catalogue as director of Icíar Bollaín is her keen social conscience implemented in different ways in tackling issues such as domestic violence in Take My Eyes, and the greed of corporate businesses in Even The Rain. The last example crops up again in The Olive Tree although not exactly in the same vein but a multi-national entity still finds itself in the role of unwitting antagonist.

Instead, Bollaín turns her focus on the importance of family heritage and the potential harm caused by putting a price on it. She also presents us with a passionate essay on sticking true to our principles and seeing something through to its bitter end. A lesser concern is the power of truth, an absent commodity in Alma’s road trip that threatens to spiral out of control, and almost does.

Bollaín uses flashbacks to illustrate the close bond between Alma, her grandfather and the titular tree, serving more than just a totem of the halcyon childhood days they spent together, it stands as a proud magnificent entity in its own right; not just a source of income for Ramon and the family but a provider of endless hours of wonder as a private playground for young Alma.

As a 20 year-old and the tree long gone, that innocence seems lost in Alma, with her unflattering punky haircut and regretful one-night stand social life alongside tech-savvy friend Wiki (María Romero) and prissy clothes horse Adelle (Paula Usero). Alma’s relationship with her father is estranged at best, the selling of the tree notwithstanding as we later learn, leaving Arti and her grandfather as her main male influences in life.

That Alma would not tell the whole truth about the trip to Germany is not an indication that she is a deceitful person, rather her callow impetuousness and caprice directs her lack of judgement in achieving her end game. The only misinformation she fed Arti and the smitten Rafa is that the tree was now in possession of a church in Dusseldorf and the minister is prepared to relinquish it under the circumstance of Ramon’s ill health.

No harm done, right? Well, the church is in fact a large corporation and the tree is situated in the lobby of its main office building; oh, and Alma does not in fact have permission to retrieve the tree either. There is much levity to be extracted from this particular scenario as we have seen in other films, and while Bollaín and writer Paul Laverty embrace this opportunity, the social commentary takes precedence, albeit with a slight satirical bent.

A little online networking by Wiki unearths a Spanish student in Germany named Sole (Ana Isabel Mena) who agrees to help set up a meeting, but after digging up info about the company, instead launches a social media campaign against the company’s immoral and environmentally questionable practices, affording Alma publicity of both positive and negative value.

It serves as nice juxtaposition for the two divergent backgrounds of these girls on a mission – Alma’s rallying of the troops is a meeting with the locals in a café; Sole galvanises half of Germany via Facebook! Not that this technology doesn’t exists in Canet but the local community is still hidebound to its rustic roots. But the determination and shared ecological passion is as much a uniting factor as Skyping.

Like with any road trip worth its salt, there is a personal journey undertaken along with the physical and geographical one. High on the list of issues addressed is the importance of family and its history, recognising how the effect it has on the here and now. No doubt this is likely a metaphor musing on the Spain’s current political state, but I assume on would need to be fluent in this are to spot it, otherwise it still works at face value.

Anna Castillo is largely known for her TV work in Spain and through this role she will be introduced to a wider audience and likely to be one to watch in the future. Her astute essaying of Alma captures the youthful flightiness and dogged determination born from immense personal passion, yet she can mark the flaws and petulant foibles that make Alma such a well-rounded character.

Bollaín’s direction is driven by purpose and vigour, yet never let the mood buckle under any unnecessary weight. She presents her native land with a sun-infused aura of rural earthiness while Dusseldorf is noticeably glossier yet sterile and austere, subtly reflected in the respective denizens too.

Maybe not as politically direct as her previous films, The Olive Tree finds Bollaín in a more reflective mood but still with something worthwhile to say with wider appeal. A lighter work but definitely not an inconsequential one.