Spain’s Oscar-winning “Alcarrás” is a surprise hit

The Catalan film captures a side of life that has given it a high profile in its home country.

Each country selects a film to enter in the Oscar race for Best International Feature Film, and many make obvious choices, but Spain’s process can be particularly unpredictable. While many countries rely on a small committee to make the decision, Spain’s selection stems from a voting process by the 1,500 members of its Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This has meant that a commercial title has occasionally been favored over more famous opportunities, such as last year’s decision to submit Javier Bardem’s business comedy The Good Boss over Pedro Almodóvar’s acclaimed Parallel Mothers, which nonetheless earned a Best Main actress could secure for Penélope Cruz.

This time the Spanish Academy went in a more ambitious direction. Many expected the film industry satire “Official Competition,” starring Antonio Banderas as the pompous actor and Cruz as his director, to take its place. Instead, Spain has chosen Alcarrás, director Carla Simón’s sensitive and naturalistic second work. This is the second time the 35-year-old Catalan filmmaker has submitted a film from the country following her intimate debut Summer 1993, but Alcarrás has already lived a much bigger life.

The film was the first Catalan-language film to win the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in February and has done well in its home country. (MUBI is releasing it in the US this fall after a North American premiere at the New York Film Festival.) Alcarrás became a number one box office hit in Spain when it opened in cinemas there in April, falling to second place the following weekend when The Northman came out. It remains in cinemas after more than 20 weeks and has grossed over 2.2 million euros at the box office.

That’s a particularly remarkable result for an art-house film that doesn’t look like an obvious commercial win on the surface. “Alcarrás” is a neo-realist study of a rural farmland in Catalonia, where a family struggles for the future of the peach farm after their patriarch dies and the owner tries to evict them. The film floats in a sense of place with a classic neo-realist style that celebrates the region and working-class life more than it engages in the high-stakes plot.

While that may sound like a daunting risk and not the most obvious Oscar nominee to some audiences, Alcarrás is an atmospheric experience that leaves a deep impression on many viewers, regardless of their familiarity with the setting. (The Berlinale jury was chaired by M. Night Shyamalan.) However, the specificity of the setting was a key factor in driving audience participation across Catalonia. When IndieWire spoke to Simón shortly after her Berlinale win in February, she predicted that. “The film will travel further than we all thought,” she said. “It’s an honor that this very local story has been seen in other countries and in Catalan, a language spoken by so few people.”

Enrique Costa, who distributed the film with his wife and producing partner Maria Zamora through their new Spanish company, Elastica Films, said that “Alcarrás” got word of mouth both for the critical acclaim and for the precise themes of regional cultures subjected to modern pressures, built Spain. “It represents family values, traditions and how to meet the changes of a new era with farmhand dignity,” he said. It was also the first lively title to hit cinemas across Catalonia when they reopened after the pandemic.

Simón, whose own family owned a peach farm in the area, spent months getting to know the community where she was shooting the film, casting all non-actors with an ensemble-based approach reminiscent of Robert Altman. “For me, the most important thing was to portray the farmers in a dignified way that they could relate to the film,” she said. “In the beginning they were really scared that we might do something that would make them look bad. It took them a little while to believe there was something interesting there, but eventually they did.”

Alcarrás would not have been made if Simón had accepted one of the offers to work on larger projects that she received after her first feature film. “I decided it wasn’t the right moment,” said Simón, who makes a living as a film instructor and used numerous grants to complete her second feature film. “I’m still looking for my way of making cinema. It’s not just about making a film. It’s about me getting to know a world that could help me grow personally. It’s part of the adventure of filmmaking.”

More information on this year’s nominees for Best International Feature Film can be found here.

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Lindsay Lowe

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