A scene from 'Solas'
Courtesy Photo
***1/2 stars In Spanish with English subtitles
98 minutes | Unrated
Opened: Friday, November 10, 2000 (SF)
Written & directed by Benito Zambrano

Starring Ana Fernandez, Maria Galiana, Paco De Osca, Carlos Alvarez-Novoa, Juan Fernandez & Antonio Dechent

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Estranged mother, angry daughter take tentative steps toward understanding in outstanding 'Solas'

By Rob Blackwelder

The title speaks volumes about each character's deeply entrenched emotional state in "Solas," a soul-clenching Spanish import dominated last year's Goya awards (the Spanish Oscar).

"Solas" translates as "alone," and it's a story about a bitterly estranged mother and daughter, forced back into each other's lives by the hospitalization of their hateful husband/father.

Maria (Ana Fernandez), whose life is filled with anger and alcohol, escaped her loveless, farm country home and moved to the city as soon as she was of age, after coming to despise her parents through a history the movie only hints at. She is alone because her entire personality is a defense mechanism. Through an adult life of hardship, she's learned to distrust everyone, and she won't let the people who really do care about her anywhere near her heart.

Her weary, withered and aged mother (Maria Galiana) is alone in her own heart as well after a lifetime of holding her tongue around her choleric, belittling husband -- whose heart attack has landed him in a hospital near their daughter's slum-bordering apartment building.

While Maria refuses to visit her ailing father, she begrudgingly feels obligated to take her mother in until her parents can return to the country. The climate between the two women is instantly acrimonious. But slowly, tentatively, they begin to set aside their practiced antagonism and repair the lines of communication in their relationship.

The driving force of this film is the soul-level sadness in the profoundly affecting performances of Fernandez and Galiana. Fernandez roots around in the daughter's damaged psyche, finding both her darkest and most vulnerable places, humanizing this fatigued woman's bitter, hardened surface. Galiana depicts the depth of the mother's loyalty, her complacency to an unhappy marriage and her oblivious ability to push her daughter's buttons -- interfering in the younger woman's life when she only means to help wash away the overwhelming misery she sees in Maria's face.

Together they subtly portray a lifetime of barriers built between them and hint at regrets they both hold but refuse to acknowledge.

Beautifully written and directed with sublime finesse by Benito Zambrano -- who makes his feature debut -- "Solas" is not a movie that turns warm and fuzzy in the last act with epiphanies or apologies. It has a much more slight and delicate character arc that sees mother and daughter beginning a long process of warming toward each other and possibly discovering better lives in the process.

They are also both moved by separate, tentative relationships with Maria's downstairs neighbor (Carlos Alvarez-Novoa), a desperately lonely old man who becomes attached to the mother. The time the elderly new friends spend together sees the mother blossom anew, but this becomes another point of strife when she goes to the hospital and her husband becomes enraged, saying he can smell another man on her.

Zambrano's resourceful direction gives "Solas" an economic elegance with powerful moments like the scene in which Maria visits a free clinic to schedule an abortion after being thrown over by her low-life lover. She scans the eyes of the other women in the waiting room -- a pregnant teenager with an indignant mom, a woman beaten black-and-blue -- then runs outside, where she slowly breaks down as a train passes.

Zambrano positions the camera on the opposite side of the tracks, focusing on Maria's face -- which is exposed in flashes between the train cars -- as she disintegrates from a small tear into emotionally draining wails.

It's an incredible shot, indicative of the kind of raw-nerve sentiment that pulses through this potent, poignant, honest and outstanding film.

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