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Journey for a tree

17 March 2017

Stephen Brown sees a story about a family with hearts to mend

© Jose haro

On a mission: Inés Ruiz as the younger (eight-year-old) Alma, and Manuel Cucala as Ramón, in The Olive Tree

On a mission: Inés Ruiz as the younger (eight-year-old) Alma, and Manuel Cucala as Ramón, in The Olive Tree

THERE are few things more powerful than a righteously indignant parochial church council determined to rectify a perceived wrong. (I write as one who knows.) The Olive Tree (Cert. 15) tells such a story.

A desperate chicken farmer, impoverished by Spain’s economic slump, sells his ancient olive tree to a German Protestant, who then re-plants it in the grounds of his Evangelische Kirche in Düsseldorf. After their beneficiary dies, the parishioners become aware of its origins and are moved to return the olive to its native soil. The farmer’s daughter, Alma (Anna Castillo), enlists her would-be boyfriend, Rafa (Pep Ambrò), and her uncle Alcachofa (Javier Gutiérrez) to commandeer a truck and collect the tree from the Rhineland churchyard.

The trouble is that the above story is not entirely true. It was a supposedly ecologically minded multinational company that had uprooted the tree and repositioned it, as a logo, at the firm’s Düsseldorf headquarters. The farmer was paid €30,000. It may as well have been thirty pieces of silver in the eyes of his daughter, Alma, and her grandfather, Ramón (Manuel Cucalca). So aghast is he by this betrayal of what was considered a family heirloom, nurtured for generations, that he has not spoken for more than a decade.

Like him, Alma views this two millennia-old tree as symbolic of all that is sacred about our lives; its knarred trunk and branches reaching ever heavenward mirror our own aspirations. More immediately, she wants to see her grandfather restored to full health. “I know you’re there” she says, looking intently into his skull. It isn’t Alzheimer’s, she says, but mourning over this act of desecration that has silenced him.

Family life is fraught. It feels as if everyone is walking on the very eggs that the farm produces, to avoid the accusations festering below the surface. The director, Icíar Bollaín, has given us another protagonist whose impetuous nature energises the belief that she has been entrusted with a holy task, one worth trying to achieve. We saw something similar in Even the Rain (Arts, 25 May 2012), in which a Dominican monk opposing atrocities that Christopher Columbus inflicted on the Taino Indians inspires a contemporary whistle-blower to bring about more humane conditions for Bolivian workers.

That film and The Olive Tree are both scripted by Paul Laverty, Bollaín’s partner and Ken Loach’s regular screenwriter. He was once in training as a Roman Catholic priest. In this new movie, he makes an important distinction between symbols and the way we regard them. Loaded on to the outgoing truck is a replica of the Statue of Liberty (don’t ask!), which is never more than an emblem of something else, not an object of worship in itself, as becomes dramatically apparent.

The magnificent olive would stand more chance of becoming an idol but for Laverty’s skilful storytelling. He neatly sidesteps any suggestions of paganism and ends up using the tree to point towards a profound need to repair broken hearts and relationships. In effect, the film resonates with atonement and resurrection, but not necessarily as we have traditionally known them. And it is all the better for that.


On current release.

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