Two yuppie architects forgo the pleasures of the Big Barcelonan City in order to eke out a living from the cork forests of Girona. It is a narrative that has risen in the cultural mindset of late, as the post-pandemic ‘new normality’ of flexible, remote working has resulted in a slew of feelgood think pieces about the joys of upping sticks and moving to the countryside, mountain retreat or beach resort – provided you’ve the white-collar job to enable this.
Here, Elena (Vicky Luengo) and Ivan (Pol López) have grand designs to renovate her inherited farmhouse into a Condé Nast-approved utopia that pays homage to the past whilst looking forward to ever bright futures. Their impending parenthood echoes this sentiment but it remains to be seen whether they are truly suited to trading pencils of soft graphite for the hard calluses of cork-harvesting axemen. Ivan takes this perceived duty seriously and works alongside their local contractors in stripping the cork trees, lugging the bark around and generally learning the land that is to sustain his family. If nothing else, the viewer will also leave Suro with a much better understanding of this ancient process, given an authentic presentation by the casting of genuine cork workers.
Ivan’s undeniable drive to prove himself, to prove something, creates distance. Vicky spends much of her time alone with a growing list of essential chores that Ivan keeps deferring. For socialite 30-somethings, the true isolation of country living is something that may have been considered but not fully appreciated; a forlorn donkey also haunts the property as a solemn figure. The unexpected stresses that come from making-a-go of it in this wild locale are transferred onto this central relationship of the film and it is here that Suro gets it very right. The relentless push-and-pull brinksmanship that long-term couples can fall into should be familiar to many, albeit heightened for the silver screen. These tensions escalate, ratchet and spiral, often seeming to overwhelm but always stopping just short. Considering the heavy foreshadowing of forest fires in this climate changed world in which we live, Suro is a powder keg of a film and the tension explodes in a goose-pimpling scene, but not through any conduit that you might expect.
In addition, socioeconomic disparities are also given their due through a tale of practically indentured servitude. A potentially dodgy forester foreman proves to be so, taking advantage of cheap labour from migrant Moroccans who are housed in the trappings of poverty. Ivan and Vicky get close to the youngest of these (Ilyass El Ouahdani), an optionless teenager out of place amidst more hardened compatriots. The local workforce tolerate the Marroquíes but constantly reinforce their precarious pecking order and it is no surprise when things come to a head.
This is a timely theme. Alongside the rise of cushy remote working in the West, a corollary of modern slavery has also taken root, with one in every 150 humans trapped in such circumstances according to a recent International Labour Organization report. An estimated 6500 migrant workers have died in Qatar, during the construction of stadiums for the upcoming World Cup. Where is the outrage? Films like this can help audiences to face uncomfortable truths about the reality of supply chain profit margins that underpin resources and luxuries that are taken for granted.
Offscreen, we might expect Suro to receive some international push. Indeed, as the feature-length debut from San Sebastian’s own Mikel Gurrea, Official Selection awards at this home turf premiere seem inevitable and deserved. The competent juxtaposition of rural Catalan idyll against the privilege checking realities makes for great cinema.
Suro premiered in the Official Competition at the 70th San Sebastian International Film Festival/ Donostia Zinemaldia. It also shows at the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.