The first image Zambrano offers is an elderly woman (María Galiana) watching over her unconscious husband (Paco de Osca) in a hospital bed. Galiana's kind, weary face suggests humility and devotion, yet her life has difficulties beyond the obvious. She and her husband live in a small village in southern Spain, and have come to the big city for his operation (the nature of which is undisclosed). Of their four children, only María (Ana Fern'ndez) is present, the others being long gone and apparently indifferent.
Even María seems unconcerned about her father's condition, and only grudgingly allows Mother to stay in her small apartment in a seedy neighborhood. Upon arrival, Mother offers to open a window because of the apartment's odor of mildew, and María tells her not to bother: "The smell's in the walls. Even I have that smell."
It's the first time that Zambrano draws our attention to the scents of people and things, a recurring motif in Solas. Later, a character remarks, "I hate how old people smell," and Mother replies, "Every age has its smell." In two separate scenes, friendships begin when one person sniffs something burning in another's kitchen.
Zambrano sets up other subtle parallels as well, as when María says her job is "cleaning up other people's shit" shortly after we've seen her elderly neighbor (Carlos Alvarez-Novoa) literally cleaning up after his dog. Angry at her station in life, she falls into despair when she discovers she's pregnant by a callous truck driver (Juan Fernandez) unwilling even to accompany her to get an abortion. María bitterly realizes she's become involved with a man virtually identical to her despised father.
When Father regains consciousness in his hospital room, he quickly establishes himself as a cruel domestic tyrant, addressing his wife as "stupid old woman," with his pinched face a mask of suspicion and loathing. When he asks if he's been a good man, it's almost comic when the best answer Mother can come up with is "There was always food on the table."
It's a let-down when Father's condition improves, especially when the elderly neighbor is so kindly and clearly taken with Mother. An almost unbearably sad sequence finds him waiting all day for Mother's bus to return from the hospital so they can dine together. Alvarez-Novoa's bearded face registers eager anticipation and then profound disappointment when she never arrives.
Solas doesn't offer a tight narrative, particularly since the characters tend to be closed off from each other, keeping chances for more lively conflict at a minimum. Zambrano focuses our attention on Mother's small acts of kindness, like knitting gifts or buying plants to liven up healthy places. She seems destined to end her days unappreciated, but conveys a kind of contentment with the idea that she could have a happier life with the neighbor, even though she won't pursue it.
Fern'ndez's performance truly grounds the film, the actress radiating the rage and fear of a prisoner. We're told that she drinks too much and eats too little, with her sunken cheeks giving her a literally hungry look. Frequently she's seething and silent, even in the gossipy company of her fellow cleaners, or when taking advantage of a friendly bartender. María demonstrates the extent to which poor people can be alienated by both temperament and lack of money.
Filmed in Seville, Solas condemns urban life not for such hot-button problems as crime or drugs, but for lack of opportunities and demeaning conditions. Except for a brief, lovely shot near the end, we never see María's home village, and we can only think that if the city is bad, the village can scarcely be better if Father comes from there.
Solas' resolution can seem a little too neat and upbeat, especially given the unsparing lack of sentiment in most of the movie. But given the grim possibilities, one can't help but embrace the hopeful ending with relief. Although most of the cast are new to acting in feature films, they give moving, naturalistic performances reminiscent of neorealist pictures like The Bicycle Thief.
Spain's most famous director is Pedro Almodovar, and Solas' street-level perspective couldn't be more opposite from his vibrant visuals and farcical, pansexual scripts. For American filmgoers, Zambrano's film offers a kind of cultural second opinion, offering another perspective on the country's concerns and creative sensibilities. Yet Solas also shows that by looking closely enough at the difficulties of one family and one apartment house, you can find experiences that are universal.
Presented by the Peachtree Film Society at 6 p.m. July 22 at General Cinema Parkway Pointe.