Spain’s Oscar Submission ‘Alcarrás’ Is a Surprise Hit in Its Home Country

Every country chooses one film to submit to the Oscar race for the Best International Feature category, and many of them make obvious selections, but Spain’s process can be especially 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 Cinematic Arts and Sciences. That has yielded the occasional preference for a commercial title over more celebrated possibilities, such as last year’s decision to submit the Javier Bardem corporate comedy “The Good Boss” over Pedro Almodóvar’s acclaimed “Parallel Mothers,” which still managed to secure a Best Actress nomination for Penelope Cruz.

This time, the Spanish Academy went in a more ambitious direction. Many expected the movie industry satire “Official Competition,” which stars Antonio Banderas as a pompous actor and Cruz as his director, to take the spot. Instead, Spain has selected “Alcarrás,” the sensitive and naturalistic sophomore effort from director Carla Simón. This marks the second time that the 35-year-old Catalan filmmaker has had a film submitted by the country following her intimate debut “Summer 1993,” but “Alcarrás” has already experienced a much bigger life.

The movie was the first Catalan-language film to win the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in February, and has gone on to perform well in its home country. (MUBI releases it in the U.S. this fall following a North American premiere at the New York Film Festival.) “Alcarrás” became the number-one box office hit in Spain when it opened theatrically there in April, and only tumbled to second place the following weekend when “The Northman” came out. It remains in theaters after more than 20 weeks and has grossed over $2.2 million euros at the box office.

That’s a particularly striking result for an arthouse movie that doesn’t look like an obvious commercial win on the surface. “Alcarrás” is a neorealist study of a rural farmland in Catalonia, where a family fights for the future of the peach farm after their patriarch dies and the owner attempts to evict them. The movie hovers in a sense of place with a classic neorealist style that celebrates the region and working-class life more than it dwells on the high-stakes plot.

While that might sound like a difficult gamble for some audiences and not the most obvious Oscar candidate, “Alcarrás” is an atmospheric experience that leaves a deep impression on many viewers regardless of their familiarity with the setting. (The Berlinale jury was headed by M. Night Shyamalan.) However, the specificity of the backdrop was a key factor in audience turnout across Catalonia. When IndieWire spoke with Simón shortly after her Berlinale win in February, she predicted as much. “The film is going to travel farther than we all thought it would,” she said. “It’s an honor that this very local story could be seen in other countries and in Catalan, which is a language spoken by so few people.”

Enrique Costa, who distributed the movie with his wife and producing partner Maria Zamora through their new Spanish outfit Elastica Films, said that “Alcarrás” built up word of mouth as result of both critical acclaim and the precise themes of regional cultures facing modern pressures in Spain. “It represents family values, traditions, and how you confront changes of a new era with the dignity of the land worker,” he said. It was also the first buzzy title to come out in theaters across Catalonia as they reopened after the pandemic.

Simón, whose own family owned a peach farm in the region, spent months getting to know the community where she shot the film and cast all non-actors with an ensemble-based approach reminiscent of Robert Altman. “For me, the most important thing was to represent the farmers with dignity in a way that allowed them to identify with the film,” she said. “They were really scared in the beginning that maybe we could make something that would make them look bad. It took them a little bit to believe there was something interesting there, but finally, they did.”

“Alcarrás” wouldn’t have happened if Simón had accepted one of the offers to work on larger projects that came her way after her first feature. “I decided it was not the right moment,” said Simón, who supports herself as a film instructor and used numerous grants to complete her second feature. “I’m still searching for my way of making cinema. This is not only about making a film. It’s about me getting to know a world that could make me grow personally. This is part of the adventure of making films.”

For more on this year’s Best International Feature Film contenders, go here.

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