Before the title credits appear, we see shots of a landscape: miraculous green groves on arid ground, sunny trees rippling autonomously – a photosynthetic wonder. A biblical mountain. What if this pastoral view became less picturesque?
ALCARRÀS (2023), named after a small region in Catalonia, tells the story of the Solé family who have farmed peaches on this land for generations. It is hard work, but it roots the extended family’s business in one place. One day, this bond to the soil is thrown into question when their cowboy hat-wearing landlord, Pinyoll, decides it’s time for them to leave. The Solé’s were given the land after hiding Pinyoll’s family during the civil war and do not have a contract to prove it. They are offered a get-out which feels like a trap – to convert the fields into a solar farm, as many other families in Alcarràs are deciding to do. With Pinyoll’s mission to create a ‘solar empire,’ says one farmer, ‘we’ll be dazzled by the sun.’
Whether it’s Venice underwater or a housing development in a local park, solastalgia is a full-frontal side effect of a capitalist economy geared towards profit at all costs
The name Solé – Catalan for sun – chimes with a more timely word: solastagia. Coined by philosopher-environmentalist Glenn Albrecht in 2005, it describes the distress of seeing one’s intimate environment being destroyed or violated, and the ensuing sense of powerlessness and estrangement. Whether it’s Venice underwater or a housing development in a local park, solastalgia is a full-frontal side effect of a capitalist economy geared towards profit at all costs. From ‘sol’ meaning shelter or protection and ‘algia’ meaning pain – the people it affects describe deep forms of grief and homesickness, even when at home.
The Solé family indeed experience the changes as a kind of alienation. In the opening scenes, three of the children – Iris and her twin cousins – play in a broken-down car. They are in a spaceship, driving too close to the sun. Iris (aptly named after the part of the eye that controls light) wears broken sunglasses. They hear a noise outside. A crane has come to take the rusty car away. Throughout the film Simón shows external powers such as these cranes, as disembodied convoys, without clear operators, adding to the sense of pervasive threat. ‘I had a nightmare that the house started flying and fell into the reservoir,’ Iris says later.
In ALCARRÀS, the child is utilized as a symbol of helplessness, characters who are essentially unsovereign, as well as the sacrificial victims of this family’s slow extinction. But the adults are shown to be just as helpless. When we first meet Rogelio, the flinty-faced grandfather, it is from behind, a position of vulnerability, when he is unable to find the contract. He bargains with Pinyoll by giving him figs from the tree Pinyoll’s grandfather had once planted, hoping nostalgia might make up for the lack of papers, his claims to the land based on feudal system which has no valence in a capitalist world. As the film progresses, he cuts an increasingly listless figure: depressed, aging and mournful.
He bargains with Pinyoll by giving him figs from the tree Pinyoll’s grandfather had once planted, hoping nostalgia might make up for the lack of papers
His son, the Tony Soprano-esque Quimet who runs the orchard, experiences a dwindling sense of patriarchal control. For anyone who believes in a green future, solastalgia holds uncomfortable tension: renewable energies such as solar and wind generally involve altering the landscape. However in ALCARRÀS, the solar panel – a device capable of harvesting the sun more efficiently than a farmer – is symbolic of automation's threat to dignified human labour. ‘I’m a farmer, not a solar power operator,’ Quimet shouts, as he shoos Pinyoll off his land. Quimet’s insecurity is that he will be replaced – we see him take down the one panel they have installed, the framing making the ‘pair’ seem equal. ‘Power and replaceability have long been mutually constructed,’ writes Amber Husain, alluding to the patriarchs of Classical myth. Whilst others – women and slaves – can be traded and sacrificed, this only ‘reaffirms the irreplaceability of Greece’s men.’ A king’s horror at his wife’s rejection of him for another in the Illiad, writes Husain, is the epic’s central premise.
Whether it’s shooting rabbits (the farm’s pest) or firing half his migrant workers, Quimet – anxiously confronted by his replaceability – clings onto his sovereignty at the sacrifice of others: ‘he cracks the whip, your father,’ jokes their uncle Cisco as they pick peaches. When Iris plays with a dead rabbit in the orchard, a migrant worker joins her, covering the rabbit in soil with an Islamic blessing – migrant, child and creaturely life appealing together to a higher power. Simón presents the older children Mariona and Roger’s powerlessness through the motif of dance – gestural movement which is not about acting or making, but about enduring and supporting. Whereas Roger’s intoxicated dancing suggests willful abandon, the lyrics to Mariona’s dance routine she practices with her girlfriends, ‘I’m the boss,’ underscore exactly what she isn’t.
An ode to the quasi-mythical multi-generational European family, one of the sweetest aspects of ALCARRÀS is how we see the whole family... lying across and over each other
Defining ‘inconvenience’ as a dynamic which throws autonomy into question, it is also, writes Lauren Berlant, ‘the affective sense of the familiar friction of being in relation.’ Simón offers a vision of tight-knit, overly familiar, at times fricative, family dynamics. An ode to the quasi-mythical multi-generational European family, one of the sweetest aspects of ALCARRÀS is how we see the whole family – from grandfather to child – lying across and over each other, nudging one another, unaware of their individual borders. They are similarly shown in contourless relation with the landscape – figures shown chopped up with foliage. Yet this enmeshment necessarily leads to nuisance – conversations overheard, business nosed into. Quimet and Cisco, previously play-fighting in the pool, have an actual fight when he betrays him and initiates the panels’ installation.
The patriarchal family must go in new, queerer directions – a potency encapsulated through the previously powerless figure of the child. As they perform one of their grandad’s ancient songs, Iris and her cousins dress in drag – a nod to Almódovar’s cross-dressing characters. Gloria, an aunt who lives in Barcelona with her girlfriend also acts as a queer, disruptive figure. When, on the night of the village festival, Mariona oversees her father arguing with Gloria, a split in Mariona seems to take place (her reflection in the window suggesting a new virtual possibility). Sitting out the sexualised dance her girlfriends perform, she turns her back to the stage: refusing traditional gender roles. When Quimet burns Roger’s marijuana plants that same evening, Roger removes the irrigation board, flooding the orchard in an oedipal act of destruction. Meanwhile Rogelio wanders around the orchard and the growing rows of solar panels as the feeble moonlight shines on him. Whatever gentle power he has left, it will not be enough to beat these monoliths.
After this upturning of social order, the next day is a slapstick mess. Iris runs around playing the recorder as the clogged fields make it impossible to harvest. Quimet breaks down in tears after spoiling a crate of peaches on the hot tarmac. Yet in this moment of vulnerability the family unite, becoming a stronger force in their shared non-sovereignty. Avenging their father, Mariona and Roger hunt rabbits and present the sacrificed creatures at Pinyoll’s doorstep.Previously resistant to joining the farmer’s union, we see Quimet and Roger at a rally – a convoy of farmers driving tractors demanding fairer prices. They tip a haul of peaches onto the ground, driving over them and pelting them at the supermarket, following up with gunfire. The former image of weakness – spoiled peaches on the floor – here becomes one of unstoppable militancy.
The Solé’s unhappiness has universal traits – their situation recalling in particular the disenfranchisement of Indigenous Peoples from their land
Although based on a specific family in a specific region of Spain, with mainly non-professional actors cast regionally, the Solé’s unhappiness has universal traits – their situation recalling in particular the disenfranchisement of Indigenous Peoples from their land. ALCARRÀS comments on sustainability, defined as a capacity to sustain things over time. Despite the importance of renewable energies, the way the panels are implemented here – suddenly and without consultation, for profit – suggests they will only be removed once a more lucrative option appears. A ‘sustainable economy’ is defined as one which ‘is resilient and provides a good quality of life for everybody’ – which in this case would mean paying the peach farmers at a rate which makes it viable to continue.
In the final scene, the family are in the garden, making preserves of yellower, sunlike peaches. Like the filmic medium itself, preserving fruit is a way to bottle up the photosynthetically-produced sweetness, making it last longer. As they chop, peel and bottle, we hear vehicles demolishing the orchard. At first the Solé’s ignore the noise, then gather round, confronting this new reality in tears, but together. The camera zooms out and we see the familiar landscape from afar – the cranes relentless at work, children playing in some small defiance.
ALCARRÀS was released on Mubi in the UK last week.
p.14-15, Amber Husain, Replace Me (Peninsula Press, 2021).
See Giorgio Agamben, ‘Notes on Gesture’.
p.2 Lauren Berlant, The Inconvenience of Other People (Duke University Press, 2022)
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