We’re officially into spring now, a time when even lifelong city-dwellers like me start entertaining bucolic thoughts. Pleasing as it is to see daffodils blooming in a London park, the seasonal rewards of new life and renewed warmth are always best illustrated in a farming environment.
Which isn’t to over-romanticise the farming world: Spanish director Carla Simón’s lovely Alcarràs (2022; now streaming on Mubi and coming to DVD on Monday) certainly doesn’t. Earthy and angry, this portrait of a Catalan peach-farming family being forced off the land they’ve held for generations captures the occasional, elemental rewards of agricultural life, but also its punishing grind – and thus fits into a rich tradition of films where the dramatic stakes, tensions and catharses all derive from the unpredictability of living off the land.
French director Jean Renoir travelled to America to make one of the great examples of the form in his 1945 film The Southerner (free on Plex), in which a Texan cotton-picker sets out to establish his own cotton farm with little more than seed in his pocket. It’s an American dream story that Renoir nonetheless de-sentimentalises with a tactile sense of soil and struggle. It would pair well, in fact, with a more recent tale of forging a future from nothing in US farm country. Drawing inspiration from Willa Cather’s rural immigrant saga My Ántonia, Lee Isaac Chung’s wistful Minari (2021) doubles down on the American dream theme by focusing on a family of South Korean immigrants, but doesn’t offer them a simple, rosy path to self-realisation.
Both films are positively idyllic, of course, next to John Ford’s sinewy, sorrowful adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), a Depression-era study of sharecroppers turned migrant workers that doesn’t stint on the novel’s visceral sense of struggle – and works toward the most conditional of happy endings as its beleaguered hero’s eyes open to the cause of workers’ rights. Foreclosures and flooding are the obstacles impeding a Tennessee farming family in the underrated, pleasingly classical 1984 saga The River, which presents their plight as equal parts tragedy and adventure – increasingly closing in on the doughty farm wife (a fine Sissy Spacek, oddly paired with Mel Gibson) holding everything together.
Drifting far from the states, Filipino director Lav Diaz made one of the essential modern farming epics with his gargantuan, experimental 2005 film Evolution of a Filipino Family (Mubi). Filmed over the course of a decade, it charts the variable rise, fall and rise of an impoverished farming family, mapping their fortunes against that of the Philippines at large. It clocks in at a whopping 10-plus hours too: you may prefer to treat it as a miniseries. It has hybrid documentary elements, though if you’re after pure nonfiction in your farm films, look to the gutsy, stoically moving family survival study Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern – a big Sundance winner in the mid-90s – or Andrea Arnold’s recent Cow (free on BBC iPlayer), an uncompromising bovine-eye view of the dairy farming industry.
Not that all such films (farmadramas, if you will) have to be downbeat. The irresistible talking-animal fable Babe (1995) remains cinema’s great example (in the continued absence of a good Charlotte’s Web adaptation) of a farm setting as a playground for childhood whimsy. The wordless, deadpan slapstick of Aardman’s glorious Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015) takes that to a sillier place still.
For adults, farm life serves as a mere cosy backdrop to the daffy, horny entanglements of English eccentrics in John Schlesinger’s manic 1995 film version of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm (free on ITVX), while Francis Lee’s Yorkshire sheep-farmer romance God’s Own Country (2017) serves up substantially more realism in its portrayal of windswept life on the moors, but doesn’t let weather or hardship get in the way of a heart-swelling happy ending.
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Also new on streaming and DVD
Alice Diop’s enthralling first foray into fiction film-making – albeit conscientiously inspired by real events – substantially rethinks the conventional rules and perspectives of the courtroom drama genre. Unpacking the racial and cultural biases at play in the case of a French-Senegalese woman on trial for killing her infant child, it forgoes speechifying and grandstanding for more complicit, empathic conceptions of justice and guilt.
Embattled Iranian director Jafar Panahi made and premiered this dense, complex fusion of tangled relationship study, rageful cry against the Iranian authorities and metafictional interrogation of his own film-making process before his recent hunger strike and subsequent release from prison, but it plays all the more powerfully in the wake of those events.
Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife
A glossy, limited edition Blu-ray release for this delightful, nimble-witted marital farce from 1938. Its trifling tale of an oft-married playboy’s latest trophy wife scheming to stick around is directed by Ernst Lubitsch and co-written by Billy Wilder with equal vim and zip, while Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper’s chemistry keeps it all airily afloat.