By comparing this film to Call Me By Your Name in its description, Amazon does it a disservice. Sure, it may be set in a beautiful villa in rural Europe and feature yearning and sweeping vistas, but that’s pretty much where the comparison ends. With its clever cinematography and complex character relationships, all developed over a deliciously drawn out plot progression and pulled off by an impressively small team, Al Óleo has trodden its own path through the tree-lined tracks of Southern Spain.
Al Óleo (Pablo Lavado, 2020) is a story about family relationships. María, a Fine Art student in Madrid, returns to her family home for a weekend with her boyfriend to visit her dad and her brother Hugo. There, tensions rise as she realises how much she’s grown apart from her family since moving to the city. Meanwhile, Hugo, who is only out to his sister, considers his sexuality and a potential attraction towards Julio, María’s boyfriend, and Ramón. To complicate matters further, Ramón is his cousin who works with him and his dad at the family farm.
Ultimately, while the plot of the film may meander about without any specific direction, the film’s strength is really all about the vibes. These truly just get more and more immaculate as time goes on.
Top Tip: Don’t fret if you get bored early on ー it just gets better and better
This film is very much a slow burn. The cinematography (which we’ll get into later…) is exquisite from the start, but the direction and intention of the narrative takes a little while to become crystal clear. Straight people canoodling opens the film, and you’re not fully aware who the queer characters are at the start. On the way, there are a few red herrings.
María, who we see with Julio at the very beginning of the film, seem like she might be queer (and for more than just the mullet). Of course, her being in a relationship with a man doesn’t deny that possibility, but it’s not her narrative we’re focusing on. Julio “forgets” his swimsuit in the car and goes to get it outside, where he changes. Our gaze shifts to Hugo and his lingering stare towards Julio undressing ー Hugo even sniffs Julio’s socks (not his underwear, his socks!) later. Soon, we see Ramón and Julio going to bed in the same room (twin beds, sadly). There are more lingering glances, but again nothing happens.
It might be good to point out here that the Spanish word “primo” is occasionally used in a colloquial sense to refer to a family friend rather than a cousin. Thus, if the idea of two cousins maybe being attracted to each other freaks you out too much then you can pretend that they’re not related by blood.
Biggest Gay Mood: wanking over your cousin
Hints to whatever will end up as the queer sexual pairing dropped throughout the film, but you never quite let yourself believe that it will actually happen. Hugo seems to be in a similar frame of denial.
On María’s final night with her family, they all go out: María, Hugo, Ramón and his pregnant girlfriend Ana. Being drunk in the streets of Europe is another example of the immaculate vibes this film creates ー part of the appeal for Brits comes from how warm it is: you’re out at 5am in shorts and a T-shirt and shivering. The film’s climax comes soon after, but I’ll leave my spoiler-filled take on that for a bonus sequence analysis next week.
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Though the film sits shorter than your average feature at just over an hour, the length is actually just right for a snapshot of a summer holiday weekend; it never feels quite as long as you had hoped it would.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, this film’s main appeal is all about the vibes. We are shown a good few scenes which add nothing to the plot or narrative, but still feel valuable to the world that is being created. We see a mostly static shot of Arturo, the dad, showering (from the waist up). Later, we watch María stand and rock slowly in her bedroom, an overly close-up, wavering camera reflecting her advanced but joyous inebriation in the early hours of a dark Spanish morning.
From the start of the film, days are overlaid with a hot summer haze: a white sheen presides over the screen, as if you need sunglasses to see what is going on. Immediately, the colour palette is warm. All told, the use of cinematography to create mood is impressive, especially considering the very small team that pulled it off.
María’s Relationships: Urban vs Rural Identities
As the only major female character in Al Óleo, María is up against it. However, living in a separate urban space apart from most of these male characters for so long, she stays above it all in so many ways. Though Hugo is our main queer character, María is a standout as the narrative lead.
María’s relationship with her boyfriend Julio is ultimately a little bland, but she does at least seem happy with him. On his part, he’s pretty gratuitous to the film and doesn’t drive the plot in any discernible way, except for his function to other characters. Honestly, it makes a nice change to have a male character play this role. In one scene, she draws him lounging on the bed and places the drawing in his waistband while he’s still asleep. We never actually see the drawing; in fact, one of her key character traits is that she’s an artist, but we never actually get to see any of her art. This is iconic in its own way.
It would not be out of character for María to be trolling everyone the whole time. She plays with Ramón (and to a lesser extent Arturo) and their backwards attitudes to women and their function in society. She takes meaningless sexist remarks to their logical conclusion to show how unconsidered they are ー and also just to mock them. It’s gorgeous to see.
Though queer yearning is a key part of Al Óleo’s identity as a film, the story is really all about the sibling relationship between Maria and Hugo. He tells her more than he tells anyone ー that he’s gay, if nothing else.They are very close, talking about sex in an open an honest way, even if humourously and light-heartedly. She knows him well enough to push him only as far as he wants to go. In one both emotionally and visually beautiful scene where Hugo is watering plants (not peeing, as it seems at first), they discuss their feelings. Here, you realise that both are mourning, dealing with their own grief over their mother’s death.
Grief is what brings these two together, but for a time it is what drives them apart from their father. Ultimately, grief brings them all closer together ー emotionally as well as in terms of physical distance.
Al Óleo is a snapshot in time; it is a weekend of family tension, of realising what you want, of sexual discovery and freedom. Getting to the heart of this film can be a slow burn, but the destination is so worth it.