Benito Zambrano crafts a masterful portrait of quiet desperation in this melancholy film that won awards at the Berlin and Brussels film festivals and garnered him Spain’s Goya Award for Best New Director. The film’s title, which is Spanish for “alone,” lets you know that the mood will be one of pervasive sadness. But don’t be deterred by its gloominess. Ultimately Solas is an emotionally rewarding film that quietly restores your faith in the basic goodness of human beings.
Zambrano’s beautifully rendered characters, wonderfully portrayed by local actors, are lonely, lost creatures, hungering for a bit of human kindness, understanding and companionship. That longing is what unites them. Maria is an angry and frustrated 35-year-old woman who escapes the hopelessness of her life by drinking. When her provincial father is hospitalized in her city, her mother comes to stay with her. Their relationship is obviously strained, and the new living arrangement is uncomfortable for both of them. Her mother, an illiterate peasant, knows she is an intruder in her daughter’s life. She occupies herself by sitting in a chair feverishly knitting gifts for others. Mother and daughter say virtually nothing to each other. The mother urging her daughter to eat, telling her she is too thin, is about the extent of their conversation. Though they long to open up to each other, 35 years of emotional distance is too hard to bridge. The women may share a living space, but they are separate, alone and isolated.
While the mother goes to the hospital to sit with the tyrannical husband, who refers to her as a “stupid old woman,” Maria goes to the cleaning job she hates. She lashes out at her mother, who herself cleaned houses to support the family. “Don’t give me your life as an example,” Maria shouts. But her life is all the mother has to give.
Zambrano carefully reveals character through quietly constructed scenes in which strained silence is more telling than words. Each scene leaves you hungering for more of the details of their lives. While each woman is disappointed with the turns her life has taken, their approaches to that disappointment are very different. Maria rails against her circumstances, while the stoic mother accepts her fate and tries to give comfort in the only way she understands. In one scene, the mother gently rubs aloe vera on Maria’s hands. “I’ve got delicate rich girl hands,” Maria says. “I should have been rich.” She hates beings poor, and wonders aloud what another life may have been like. “I’d only change one thing,” her mother begins to open up. But this moment of revelation ends before it begins, with Maria falling asleep.
Maria’s jaded outlook is understandable. She’s pregnant, but her abusive boyfriend cavalierly screams at her to get an abortion. (“A child isn’t a whim, it’s a mistake.”) He’s as cruel as her father. As much as Maria obviously hates her mean-tempered father, however, she’s a lot like him. She’s also more like her mother than she’d like to admit, and she’s following a similar course by attaching herself to an emotionally abusive man who cares nothing for her.
Into the lives of these two lonely women comes a man who will change their luck. When the mother doesn’t have enough money to buy the meat and cheese in her basket, an old man next in line offers to make up the difference. He lives in Maria’s building, and when the mother goes to pay him back, she notices that his dinner is burning. Ever the practical caregiver, the mother instinctively offers to cook him dinner, thus beginning their simple friendship.
The old man sees her sadness, though he is burdened with a sadness of his own. As lonely as the mother and daughter, he longs for simple human connection. Neighbors, he tells the mother, help one another. But she is too afraid of her husband’s rage to accept the old man’s overtures of friendship. He’s a childless widow, whose health is failing and whose biggest fear is that he won’t be able to care for himself much longer. When the mother suggests he go to a nursing home, he stubbornly refuses, clinging to his waning independence. He’s a good and gentle man, so different from her husband that she’s flattered by his attention.
Her susceptibility to his kindness makes her feel guilty, however, and her husband’s screams that he can “smell a man on you” only intensify that guilt, forcing her to withdraw from the one person who treats her with compassion and respect. But, just as she improves her daughter’s life with the simplest of unspoken gestures—a flower pot, a ball of yarn and a rocking chair—she holds onto the old man’s kind words, taking more comfort in them than he’ll ever know.
The mother goes about her work silently. That silence is her refuge. But silence is Maria’s curse. For her, having no one to talk to and holding everything inside ends up “burning [her] guts out.” When she finally opens up to the old man, the words of her life come tumbling out faster than she can stop them and with a rage she can’t control. Maria wants her life to change. To the old man, who sees each dawn as one more day God has granted, Maria has a whole life of second chances ahead of her. Helping her to realize that is his greatest gift.
Zambrano’s moving film is a true celebration of small acts of kindness. Without them, what’s left but the abyss?
Solas (NR) HHHH Directed by Benito Zambrano. Starring Ana Fernández and María Galiana. In Spanish with subtitles.