You see them on the streets of any Spanish city—old women in shapeless black dresses, their broad bodies moving slowly through the hurrying crowds. In Solas, Spanish director Benito Zambrano crafts an extraordinarily moving drama around one such figure, who seems immutable but who changes the lives of those around her.
A provincial woman (María Galiana) has left her village for the city, where her husband needs surgery; while he recovers, she stays for a few days with her daughter. María (Ana Fernández), the daughter, is angry—35 and single, she hates her job as a cleaning woman, her love life leaves much to be desired, and an odor of decay hangs over her crumbling apartment. Silently, with tortoise-like determination, the mother gets to work—she adds a flowering plant here, an old rocking chair there, while her knitting needles are perpetually busy. This ceaseless activity of caring for things and people is her only answer to her daughter’s rage and frustration.
Zambrano hits a couple of false notes in Solas, his first feature. María’s temper occasionally flares melodramatically; her father’s jealous snarling makes you wish some hospital staffer would poison him; and the ending has a fairy-tale quality. But using local actors and a limited budget, Zambrano has fashioned a work that’s both deeply rooted in its Andalusian setting and immensely resonant, about generations of women caught between the old world’s barbarism and the modern city’s ruthless anonymity. The inhuman elements of urban life are all subtly present: from the frightful loneliness of the elderly to the servile invisibility of menial labor to the streets full of abandoned people.
The fierce rigor of María Galiana’s performance keeps this film from ever falling into sentimentality: The hint of romance that develops between her character and a gentlemanly octogenarian who lives downstairs, for example, is handled with beautiful restraint. But the film’s greatest achievement is in portraying the bonds between mother and daughter. It’s a love that doesn’t express itself through open declarations, but through small gestures of infinite patience, and its value is priceless.