Now here’s an unexpectedly resonant, borderline poetic film where the oldster is the framework for a youngster finding their courage. The trailer made me think it would be about an old man and his 2,000 year old olive tree, and it is, but the focus isn’t on him. After some idyllic flashbacks – building the memories of his grand-daughter – there are a couple of brutal ones where he is betrayed by everyone else in the family before slumping into a twenty year silence. But he has reached his grand-daughter’s soul, for a while there they were mates as the generations should be, and she chases a dream much like I chase memories of my Grandpa Gus by watching Robert Donat do his thing.
The Olive Tree is lovely. Imperfect, silly in places, wildly unlikely in others, but…get your arse down to a TV room and give it a go. The relationship between grand-father and grand-daughter will speak of Christmas mornings, helping your kids out in the summer holiday, and the oldest of family drives: to share the lessons of the past and ensure they reach future generations. Here, it is about an ancient olive tree on a family farm, honoured by grand-father Ramón (Manuel Cacala), learned about, played on and also honoured by grand-daughter Alma (Anna Castillo). The young Alma sees an old monster’s face in the tree, humanizing it in a Harry Potterish way, perhaps, and is as devastated as Ramón when the intervening generation sell it to fund a beach-side restaurant…
We spend some time in flashback, Cacala and Inés Ruiz as young Alma bonding over the old thing – and sharing how to get a new one going… a scene you know is coming along later. Then the domestic shock arrives: Ramón’s kids sell the tree, diggers arrive, it is ripped from the earth despite a screaming Alma climbing its ancient gnarliness. In a moment of mutual defeat that kills the family vibe forever, Ramón takes his grand-daughter away from danger…and begins to grieve for the tree.
Years pass. Alma becomes an angry woman, with a nasty haircut, in constant fights with her family and carrying darker shadows from brutal life. Rejecting an admiring boy (Pep Ambròs as the faithful, foolish Rafa), winding up her uncle Alcachofa (Javier Gutiérrez is sharply-edged and none too bright) and maintaining a friendship with the brightest couple in town, Alma is torn apart by the degradation of her grandfather. For Ramón is now silent, prone to wandering off in search of el olivo, and tangibly near the end. For all his children talk of the harsh man that raised them, he is past pathetic into hopeless; old Jack felt the loss in his gut. The waterfront restaurant, by the way, went tits up years ago…
If there’s a moment of illumination in The Olive Tree, it comes as Alma decides to get the thing back for grand-father. The rest of the film is a bit road-trippy and unbelievable, but I loved it from when the newest generation chose to honour the oldest. Alma has no real plan, but gets the elements in place: her smart friend Wiki (Maria Romero is terrific as the insightful observer and tentative help) finds the thing – it’s in an energy company’s reception; Alma tricks Rafa and Uncle Alcachofa into taking a lorry and going with her to get it from Dusseldorf (a truth) from a church (a lie); they go despite the odds and the inevitable.
Cacala as the grandfather is the silent foundation of this film, starkly still in the present and full of wiry energy back in the day. That wiriness is common amongst the men, Gutiérrez giving a wonderfully dumb-and-angrily-knows-it performance. Most of the comedy is his. Ambròs is the kindly boy hurt by the damage already done to Alma; but faithful to his affection for her nonetheless. And Anna Castillo drives them all in an accessible, respecting and touching characterisation that had the TV room cheering for her despite general bemusement at her youth and disapproval of her hair-styling choices.
Watch The Olive Tree. If you’re feeling low on family love, well, there’s a moment near the end, you’ll know it, when, in the centre of a lot of silliness, Gutiérrez and Castillo blast out a moment of unspoken honesty that is all about family, love and that silent old man.