Paradise Lost
By Susannah Gruder

New York Film Festival 2022:
Alcarr脿s
Dir. Carla Sim贸n, Spain/Italy, MUBI

The small Catalonian village of Alcarr脿s was chosen as the location for Carla Sim贸n鈥檚 second feature for reasons beyond its lush farmland and sprawling, dusty hills. The town is home to Sim贸n鈥檚 family peach orchard and serves as the inspiration for the film鈥檚 neorealist narrative, which follows a family of farmers as their lifestyle is challenged by forces of modernization closing in around them. While Sim贸n鈥檚 family business is still operating, this project carries with it an almost preemptive nostalgia, spurred by the increasing disappearance of family farms in the region. Her first feature, 2017鈥檚 Summer 1993, was a fictionalized portrait of her experience losing her parents at age six, and here Sim贸n is again deeply rooted in the personal, attempting to capture, celebrate, and perhaps begin to mourn a way of life that may soon be gone.

Alcarr脿s is centered around the Sol茅 family, proprietors of a peach orchard they鈥檝e run for generations. The orchard was given to aging patriarch Rogelio (Josep Abad) with nothing but a verbal contract during the Spanish Civil War. Now, the legal landowner has announced plans to install solar panels in place of the trees, paving the way for a more lucrative business, a move the Sol茅s have no legal right to refute. Rogelio鈥檚 adult son Quimet (Jordi Pujol Dolcet) takes the news the hardest, refusing to even acknowledge that change is coming, while his sister Nati (Montse Or贸) and her husband Cisco (Carles Cab贸s) eventually prove more willing to adapt, despite the strain it puts on the family. Sim贸n is perhaps even more concerned with how this affects the Sol茅 grandchildren. While 12-year-old Mariona (X猫nia Roset) and teenaged Roger (Albert Bosch) respond by retreating into their own worlds, the three younger cousins are endlessly curious as to why their bucolic playtime oasis is about to be destroyed, and why family tensions are exploding in ways they鈥檝e never seen before.

鈥淚dyll, Interrupted鈥 could be the title of a subgenre of films from the past 15 years, depicting the modest livelihoods of locals threatened by gentrification, industrialization, corporate interests, and other encroaching goliaths. (Not to mention the resulting climate change wrought by all of the above.) Some have been urgent, intelligent, and stylish, like Ursula Meier鈥檚 Home (2008), Kleber Mendon莽a Filho鈥檚 Aquarius (2014), Alice Rohrwacher鈥檚 Happy as Lazzaro (2018), and Alex Camilleri鈥檚 Luzzu (2021). Alcarr脿s, perhaps afraid to be too didactic or inelegant with its messaging, is less successful, a largely unmoving depiction of a family in decline. It鈥檚 an overly studied exercise in the hands-off school of naturalism that lacks the verve of forebears like Lucrecia Martel and Dominga Sotomayor Castillo, whose work portrays ensemble casts in similar settings. With a script that fails to take any real turns (even predictable ones) and a bland cinematographic style, Alcarr脿s is more concerned with building a world that鈥檚 believable, rather than impressing indelible images or provocative ideas on the viewer.

Sim贸n鈥檚 film is bolstered chiefly by her cast of nonprofessional actors, who together form an entirely authentic unit, feeding off one another鈥檚 energy for better or worse. 鈥淲hen you are part of a big family, all the emotions kind of affect one another, no?鈥 Sim贸n said in an interview at the Berlinale, where Alcarr脿s won the Golden Bear. 鈥淭he family moves like an emotional body.鈥 Sim贸n deftly captures the family鈥檚 day-to-day routines, the liveliest being the peach-picking scenes in the orchard. Many of the cast members are farmers or come from farmers鈥 families, so their knowledge of the process allows for a dynamic energy to emerge鈥攁dults reaching for peaches, children playing in the empty barrels beside them. These scenes, however, perhaps aiming to show the Sol茅s鈥 tactile connection to the land, become repetitive, until we start to feel like we鈥檙e watching a PSA for organic farming, instead of witnessing a narrative with the forward motion the concept would seem to demand.

It can be a pleasure to float alongside a vague and meandering narrative that doesn鈥檛 impose a typical dramatic structure. Here, however, subtleties and grace notes are stomped out, with so many small moments serving as portentous omens or weighty lessons about the imminent end to their lifestyle. Quimet, unwilling to find a solution to the actual problem at hand, futilely tries to eradicate a 鈥減lague鈥 of rabbits that鈥檚 eating away their crop by shooting blindly at them from his car. The family cow is sick, too, and an old woman expresses her disdain for fricando, or Catalan beef stew, where the sauce is made with an electric blender instead of a mortar and pestle, hinting at a regional pattern of resistance to change.

If Sim贸n has a stylistic trademark, it would be an affinity for working with children. In Summer 1993, which boasts a plot even simpler than this, viewers see the world through the eyes of Frida (Laia Artigas), whose parents, like Sim贸n鈥檚, have both died from AIDS. Inspired, she says, in part by Spanish films that explore child psychology like The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and Cr铆a cuervos (1976), Simon manages to get through to the viewer by homing in on one girl鈥檚 confusion, anger, and unique expression of grief as she comes to understand this loss. In Alcarr脿s, young cousins Iris (Ainet Jounou) and twins Pere and Pau (Joel and Isaac Rovira) open the film, animatedly playing spaceship in an old Volkswagen Beetle, before they exit and a construction crane comes in to take it away, the first sign of change on the orchard. Sim贸n doesn鈥檛 tell the story through their eyes (though the adorably expressive Jounou steals the spotlight in several scenes), instead weaving the experiences of different family members together in an effort to construct a cohesive tapestry. None of these characters are given enough solo screentime to develop, however, and potentially compelling threads, like Roger鈥檚 late-night club outings and covert marijuana grow operation, are barely followed-up on. The ripple effect that the takeover has on the African migrant workers, slightly touched upon in one scene, is dropped altogether shortly after.

At times, Sim贸n manages to capture the feeling of living in a constant state of stress, experienced by so many workers demanding better conditions. For Quimet, this doesn鈥檛 look the same from day to day鈥攕ometimes, he will go to a protest to demand fair prices for his products. And other times, he鈥檒l do something less productive, like pick a fight with his brother-in-law as he installs solar panels, or ignore the impending regime shift all together, pushing his body too far during the peach harvest to the point of straining his back. The impact of this upheaval on the Sol茅s barely registers dramatically. The focus of Sim贸n鈥檚 gaze is at once too wide, refusing to zero in on a particular character鈥檚 struggle, and too narrow, disregarding the way this one family鈥檚 crisis can reverberate out into the world.

In the final scene, a crane, first heard as an ominous off-screen sound, begins to cut down the Sol茅s鈥 peach trees, the family resignedly looking on. The brutal hum of the engine builds as we realize what鈥檚 happening, even if we can鈥檛 see it at first. Soon, Sim贸n cuts to the crane ripping trees from their roots, and an overhead shot of the half-destroyed orchard. Intended as a powerful last image that will stay with the audience, the shot somehow feels superfluous鈥攖he haunting soundscape alone would have been enough, buzzing in our ears long after the credits have rolled.