This impressive family drama reminds us of what we’re missing on film

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(M) 120 minutes

Alcarras is a farming community in the wild west of Catalonia, where few tourists go. The people speak a dialect of Catalan and grow stone fruit, although low prices have made that harder of late. Some farmers have grubbed up their trees to install banks of solar panels, producing electricity rather than food.

Ainet Jounou, one of the non-professional actors in Alcarras.Credit: Lluís Tudela

Quimet (Jordi Pujol Dolcet) refuses to consider this. “I’m a farmer, not a handyman,” he declares. Then he receives a notice to quit the land. His father admits they have no documentation to prove their right of occupation, which is based on a handshake with the old landowner whose son now wants the land back. During the Spanish Civil War, when rich landowners were being murdered, Quimet’s father’s family protected this other family. Now, they face eviction if they will not agree to install the solar works. No documents, no rights.

There is a rich tradition of rural stories on film, but they have become rarer in the modern era for various reasons. They can be more expensive to film than urban stories and writers need to have grown up in these communities to understand the rich dramas under the surface. There’s a sense that slow, complex stories of rural life are somehow boring, or too taxing for modern attention spans. There’s no bang bang, unless pursuing a hapless rabbit or two.

Alcarras reminds us of what we’ve been missing. It’s a beautiful, sad, authentic depiction of the drama within one extended family facing a kind of oblivion. Quimet’s stubborn refusal to bend puts the whole family under pressure as they face their final harvest. They can no longer afford the African workers who helped bring in the peaches and nectarines. Quimet is angry his mother, sisters, wife and children have to pick fruit. Other farmers dump truckloads of fruit in the city in protest – the market price covers only half the cost of production.

Alcarras is 36-year-old Catalan-born Carla Simon’s second feature and it is beyond impressive. Simon spent part of her childhood near this area after her parents died when she was six. Her first feature, Summer 1993, was about that childhood. Alcarras is based on the lives of her relatives and forms the middle part of an intended trilogy. All the actors are non-professional.

Simon has rare gifts of which the most important is compassion. Her sense of the drama facing each member of the family, however young, gives the film its pulse. She tells this story largely through the eyes of Iris (Ainet Jounou), the six-year-old daughter, who watches bewildered as her family falls apart.

Simon’s direction of children elevates her films. Her connection to the child’s point of view is the source of authenticity. It’s seductive to know we are watching someone’s lived experience – something real. Movies have strayed far from that path, offering fantasy instead, but there’s no comparison. Being able to feel another person’s heartbeat is one of the reasons that film was invented.

Alcarras opens on July 27.

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