*Solas (not rated)
Samuel Goldwyn Films/Fireworks Pictures
A universal subject, spare but excellent writing, powerful and subtle acting -- all of these characterize Solas (alone), which opened this week at Silver Cinemas. In a quiet, mostly non-melodramatic way, the film explores the power of compassion, the love of a mother for her daughter, and the ways that that love can bring together those who are most alone.
The mother, identified only by that name, is a woman in her 70s played by Maria Galiana. She is a peasant woman who has come to the city of Seville from the Spanish countryside to sit by her husband's bed while he recovers from an operation. The hours that she does not stay in the hospital, she spends at her unmarried daughter Maria's apartment in a poor and dangerous section of the city. The apartment is bleak and unkempt and sad, just as Maria herself.
Maria (Ana Fernandez) resents her mother's attentions to her father (Paco de Osca), who was and is a brute, hates that she is poor and uneducated and forced to work as a maid for the wealthy, and responds by drowning her anger in gallons of drink. The final indignity is that she finds herself pregnant by her boyfriend Juan (Juan Fernandez), a man so callous that he refuses to accompany her to the clinic to get an abortion. Just as you might feel sorry for her she does something awful, like steals money and bottles of liquor from the friendly neighborhood bartender, and you're left shaking your head in disbelief.
Just below Maria's apartment lives an elderly man (Carlos Alvarez-Novoa) whose only companion is his German Shepherd Achilles. He and the mother strike up a quiet friendship that centers around cooking food and helping one another as neighbors might. As with her daughter's life, mother simply sees what needs to be done and does it, and in the process transforms everyone's lives.
This is a film that is remarkable for its fine storytelling more than its extraordinary versatility in camera work, cinematography and so forth. The script is wonderfully spare (which makes the subtitling quite easy to follow without losing a lot of the original Spanish), and director Benito Zambrano is not afraid of the long silences and glances and sighs that accompany true loneliness. Outstanding performances by all three of the main actors, but especially Galiana, carry enormous emotional weight.
At the same time, there is much to be celebrated in the filmmaking as well. The locations are terrific -- urban apartments, train depots and bars -- and there are sequences that have been executed with exquisite care. For example, in a long moment when a train passes in front of Maria and the camera, we see her face transform with sorrow and fear, each expression punctuated by the black of the train. It is as fine acting and filmmaking as I can remember seeing.
Solas is a celebration of the power of a mother to endure and transform. With the exception of a kind of stretching narration and wrap-up at the end, its aesthetic is deeply foreign to most American films, including the indies. See it for that alone, to be wholly transported to Seville in the modern day, with everything looking so very different and yet, to have loneliness so recognizable that it could be your own. And see, too, how loneliness can be understood and tamed with forbearance and simple kindnesses, and the center found again.