The teacher and the farmer who are at the heart of 'Alcarràs'
Anna Otin and Jordi Pujol Dolcet play two central characters in Carla Simón's film
BarcelonaHow to represent a family of farmers in the Lleida countryside? For Carla Simón there was only one possible way: with people from the area, who are close to the experiences portrayed in the flim Alcarràs, which arrives in cinemas today. The result, needless to say, is extraordinary. The work of the non-professional actors who play the Solé family has been acclaimed for the absolute naturalness they exude, not only individually, but also in capturing family rhythms and dynamics. The identification is such that, to this day, they still call each other by the names they used in the film: mum, dad, granddad...
Jordi Pujol Dolcet and Anna Otin are at the heart of this fictional family. Their characters are Quimet and Dolors: he is visceral, has temper and works the land while she, calmer and more discreet, looks after the house and the children. They are the backbone of the Solé family, which is falling apart due to the announced death of their world and their way of life. The characters, of course, share traits with the actos, especially in the case of Pujol. Like Quimet, he was a farmer and worked the family land in Soses until, fourteen years ago, he had to give up because of the low prices paid for fruit. "It was hard, very hard, like going through an illness, but I don't regret it because now things are worse, especially for young people," he says. "In fact, one of the reasons for giving up was that I had a four-year-old son and I didn't want this form him. Luckily I found a job at the Town Hall and now I'm fine. And in the afternoons I go to work a piece of land that I kept, but only as a hobby".
There are fewer parallels between Otin and Dolors. "I'm more impulsive, more shouty," she says. She is not the wife of a farmer, although she knows many; she works as a teacher in a nursery school. "I only picked fruit when I was young, in the summer with friends. With the money I made I paid my way through my teaching degree," she recalls. Even so, she clearly identifies Dolors' gentleness and silent authority with "the women of yesteryear" and, specifically, with her grandmother: "I remember her all afternoon washing spinach or whatever it was, quietly.... Grandma never raised her voice, but she always did what she wanted".
An eccentric casting process
Casting Alcarràs was long and difficult, since the team spent months searching around Alcarràs for the actors for the film. Pujol and Otin, in fact, did not even show up for any auditions. "I went to a demonstration to save Lleida farmers and there they were, looking for people to play Quimet," says Pujol. They recorded me saying a few things and they must have found it funny". He was not so amused by the idea of making a film. "I was afraid that the film would talk about agriculture," he admits, "about mega-farms, about farmers polluting... I didn't want to take part in something that would harm farmers. Besides, I have no idea about acting, and it didn't suit me at all". The final decision, however, was not made by him: "They forced me," he says with a half-smile. My wife told me to just go, that she didn't want to hear me anymore".
Otin's case was even more bizarre. "I used to go to aerobics class at the gym where they also cast the film, but I didn't want to know anything about it. "Carla Simón? Who's Carla Simón? Auteur cinema? Oh, I don't know about this weird kind of cinema". But one day we shot a video clip and Carla Simón happened to be there and saw me: "This is what I'm looking for". Otin ended up letting herself be convinced and several trials until she made it through to the last three. She did her last test with Pujol. "He was very overwhelmed, poor thing, but we hit it off straight away and they chose me," says Otin. And thank goodness. A year later, in Berlin, we were saying to each other: 'Can you imagine now if we hadn't made the film?"
Before shooting, Carla Simón took the cast to a farmhouse in L'Horta de Lleida –the Green House, as the actors called it– where they spent a few months getting to know the characters in a natural and relaxed way, as if it were all a game. "We did scenes from the film and situations that Carla imagined and she would tell us things such as: now shout some more, now make an angry face," Pujol explains. "At first I didn't know what this woman wanted, but when we got to the shooting everything was very easy". Otin points out that, by dint of living together at the Casa Verde, bonds between the actors emerged and "the Solé family was born". She adds: "Carla knows exactly what she wants, but she gives you a lot of freedom and makes you feel very comfortable. She moves you from one place to another and, little by little, you learn to be more Dolors and less yourself. She even made Jordi dance, which his wife says he hasn't done since the wedding! And he has also made him cry, which he probably hasn't done since he was a child. Whether you like it or not, it takes things out of you".
Tears and slaps
The scene in which Quimet cries was precisely the most difficult scene in the film for Pujol. "I don't even know how many times we repeated it, it didn't come out," he recalls. "How could we cry all of a sudden, when we were all so happy there? And there's also what we men have always been told, that we mustn't cry. It was a struggle with my brain". The team went through the usual tricks: peeling onions, Vicks VapoRub... but nothing worked. "Not a tear," says Pujol. "But when they finally came out, they were real. Now, I don't even know how I did it. I guess because of the emotions. I had a terrible time."
Otin also had a hard time in a scene in which she had to slap her husband and son a couple of times. For me it wasn't Quimet and Roger, but Jordi and Albert," she says. "I hit them lightly because I didn't want to hurt them. And of course, Carla told me that she didn't believe it and we had to do it over and over. It got softer and softer, and Carla got more worried. Until I said: 'Do you want me to really hit them, is that what you want?' And I slapped them so hard that there was dead silence. 'Spectacular,' Carla said. I sighed in relief. But then she said, 'Now let's do it from another angle.' And I'm like, 'What?' [laughs]. The effort was rewarded: at the screening at the Malaga Festival, a standing ovation erupted at the moment of the slap. "There must have been a lot of feminists there," says Otin. Afterwards I said to Carla "You may have been awarded the Golden Bear but they applauded me for hitting my husband!".