Alma (Anna Castillo) works at her family's chicken farm, which uses intensive modern methods to get the poultry onto Spanish dinner tables, how different from the ways her grandfather (Manuel Cucala) used to grow and harvest his olive grove back when he was able. She can remember those days with plenty of fondness, since they both got along famously, he was a rock in her life when her parents were often letting her down, but now sadness has struck her as her grandfather suffers from Alzheimer's Disease and is barely even a shadow of his former self: there does not appear to be any remaining part of his personality left. He has a habit of wandering off and Alma goes to fetch him; that olive grove holds a definite attraction...
The team of director Iciar Bollain and writer Paul Laverty struck again with another item of social consciousness-raising after their Even the Rain collaboration, but this time they had a little too much on their plate as they tried to sum up the international economic crisis in just over ninety minutes. It was undoubtedly an ambitious work and held together by a fine central performance from emerging star Castillo who grounded the elements that were at times over-keen to draw in as much of Laverty's concerns as he could pack into his script, so not only is she participating in a livelihood under threat, but she feels like crusading for justice, is a carer for her elderly relative, she self-harms, and so on: it was excessive.
Also not really helping was the central premise where we had been asked to believe that Alma was deeply, spiritually connected to the tree of the title. Taking the construction of one of those family movies where a small child tries to be reunited with a favourite pet after it was taken away from them against their will, it helped if you regarded the tree as akin to a faithful dog, or maybe if you wanted to be exotic an elephant that never forgot, or a fearsome tiger that was tamed by the corporate machine when what it wished for was to be back in Alma's countryside home. Of course, it was none of those things, and flashbacks to her childhood where she played in the branches because she could make out a face in its trunk were a bit of a stretch, emotionally.
This meant you were stuck with a bond between a girl and her lost bit of wood, which might have been more successful artistically if there had been more humour present, yet for the most part we were invited to take this very seriously indeed. Alma comes across as more than a tad unhinged when she ropes others into her quest to track down and bring back the olive tree that had been of such major importance for her and her ailing grandparent all those years ago (well, it wasn't that long ago, to be honest). What has happened to the cute and cuddly big plant? It was dug up by a business conglomerate and transported to act as a sort of overgrown ornament, and before you consider that farfetched, it should be pointed out that mighty Spanish trees were indeed transplanted to other locations across the Europe and Asia.
So Laverty was basing this story in truth, and it made a clever metaphor for globalisation and the way it picks and chooses the best of communities to use it for their own ends without giving much back to sustain them once they were selling their most prominent industries or agriculture. What it did not make was a touching tale when the tree could not do anything but stand there and never reciprocate the love Alma has for it, again a metaphor for her relationship with her now-unresponsive grandfather, but he was a better character than the tree, that being a largely inanimate object, no matter that it grew over time. Alma's harebrained scheme to reclaim it was treated as something she could legitimately bring about for too much of the running time, which given she was dragging her uncle and a family friend along and essentially playing them for saps (no pun intended) had you anticipating the drama heading to places it never resolved, merely ending in a protest that goes nowhere and the inevitable. A curious thing, not unlikeable, but needed more fairy tale sparkle. Music by Pascal Gaigne.