The Olive Tree (2016)

The Olive Tree is a charming film scripted by Ken Loach’s collaborator Paul Laverty, directed by Icíar Bollaín, demonstrating the power of personal conviction and positive action.


by Alexa Dalby

The Olive Tree

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Ken Loach’s longstanding collaborator Paul Laverty wrote the screenplay for the Spanish-language drama The Olive Tree, set in rural eastern Spain, near Valencia. He has created real, memorable characters and, like I, Daniel Blake and the many others he has scripted, it’s just as socially committed as you might expect.

The olive tree, the central character in this film, is 2,000 years old, planted by the Romans – it’s living history and it’s sacred to the people whose land it grows on. In a flashback we see Alma (Anna Castillo) as a young girl (Inéz Ruiz) with her grandfather (Manuel Cucala), as he teaches her about grafting shoots – “This is how life works, you pass it down.” We become so invested in the value of this tree that when Alma’s father sells it to get money to bribe the mayor to get permission to build a cafe and we see it cut down and its roots bulldozed, it shocks like a rape and feels like a tragedy.

The child Alma climbed the tree to try and stop the desecration. As an adult she’s still resourceful and sparky. When she sees that her grandfather has never stopped grieving for the tree he lost and has given up the will to live, she sets out to trace what happened to it. She discovers that it was sold to an energy company in Germany and is now imprisoned in the atrium of their headquarters in Dusseldorf. As the ultimate irony, she sees online that they are using an image of it as their logo. With the help of her computer-savvy friend Wiki (María Romero), they start an online campaign which takes off internationally, and she tricks her uncle (Javier Gutiérrez) and love-lorn friend (Pep Ambròs) into driving her across Europe in a flat-bed truck to rescue the tree and bring it home.

Believable characters negotiating their way through a moral crisis – it’s involving, gripping and also full of humour. The European economy and the unequal relationship between Spain and Germany underpins the film, with incidental comment on the short-termism that Spain has been forced into. History and its relationship to the present and respect for the environment are the driving forces. The drama hinges on the fact that olive trees are considered to have special significance in the countries that border the Mediterranean. That’s an understanding that films such as Budrus and The Lemon Tree are also infused with, and here it’s a very potent symbol.

Anna Castillo is a sympathetic heroine and she won Spain’s Goya award for Best Actress for her performance and the supporting characters are well drawn. The film is fluidly directed by Laverty’s partner Icíar Bollaín, with seamless use of flashbacks to expand the story. The trigger is a minor incident that triggers major significance and The Olive Tree ends as a joyful, life-affirming film that shows the power of personal conviction and positive action.

The Olive Tree is released on 17 March 2017 in the UK.

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