Solas Review

Spanish cinema in the nineties, or at least what little of it made its way outside of Spain, was dominated by the gaudy Madrileño-chic of Pedro Almodóvar and the Catalunyan craziness of Bigas Luna. Coming in at the end of the decade, Solas presents a side of Spanish film-making that is more realistic and closer to a Spanish literary tradition that has thrived on depictions of poverty, misery and desperation for decades. While one wouldn’t expect to see today the sort of abject poverty described in Spanish Nobel Prize winner, Camilo José Cela’s La Familia de Pascual Duarte, Spain still suffers from high unemployment and poverty, especially in rural areas. It is also clear from Benito Zambrano’s film that the role of women in Spanish society hasn’t changed greatly from what is depicted in Delibes’ Cinco Horas con Mario or fellow Andalucian, Federico Garcia Lorca’s La Casa de Bernarda Alba and machismo is still very dominant in that part of the world.

Solas, literally (Women) Alone, focuses on María, a young woman living in a poor barrio of Sevilla. When her father falls ill and is admitted to hospital in the city, María’s mother comes from the country to stay with her in her apartment. María has problems of her own – alcohol, men, poverty and unemployment – so sharing her home with her mother is the last thing she needs.

It is pretty bleak subject matter, but has all the necessary ingredients for good drama if handled correctly. Solas succeeds by treating its characters with dignity and not succumbing to the trap of glorying in their misery the way I would see Angela’s Ashes doing, for example. (Frank McCourt’s book was, unsurprisingly, a huge phenomenon in Spain that year, so the film could easily have trod a similar path).
“Defeat is not the enemy’s triumph. Admitting the defeat is.”, says María’s neighbour – an old man with whom her mother has struck up a friendship – and this represents the positive side of the film. It’s a fatalistic kind of optimism, but it’s this perseverance and refusing to bow down, that prevents the film from descending into unrelenting bleakness.

I’m making this film sound more depressing than it really is. It’s the spirit of the characters involved and their strength and determination that shines through here, and what we have in Solas is a well-written, well-acted, well-directed and accessible drama that, while bleak, is also moving and sincere without ever quite being maudlin or oppressive. The film ends on that desperate note of optimism, played out to Neneh Cherry’s Spanish version of ‘Woman’.

Writer-director, Benito Zambrano’s earlier career as a stage director is evident in this first feature. The story-telling is lean and sharp and the characters are clearly defined by the words and actions of the actors. There are few locations used but since the director is portraying a society where the man’s place is the bar and the woman’s place the home, this is entirely appropriate.

The picture and audio quality on this DVD release is really only just above average. There are no dust marks or scratches on the print to speak of and the picture is presented anamorphically at 1:85:1. The image however is soft in places and blacks are often a faded murky brown. At other times the contrast can seem a little strong, with bright back-lighting causing flare or colour-bleed. The director of photography relies mostly on naturalistic lighting which enhances the realism of the film. It’s not a big budget film by any means, so the lack of overall quality in the image and sound doesn’t detract from the telling of the story, which is clear, well-paced and focussed, keeping you involved throughout.

Subtitles are not removable, but are not burnt into the print. They are not always readable against bright backgrounds and leave tracks like scratch marks on the print, but I doubt Artificial Eye could have transferred the subtitles to a more readable format without an expense that couldn’t be justified for what is only a minority interest film. The translation is good however, as far as I could make out through the thick Andalucian accents.

Extras are few and, being text based, don’t really take advantage of the medium as they could easily be reproduced in a booklet insert. They are however relevant and informative about the background and making of the film.

The film was the recipient of 14 awards in 1999, including 5 Goyas (the Spanish Oscars). They’re taking a long time to make their way over here, but on the evidence of Zambrano’s Solas, Amenábar’s Abre Los Ojos and Almodóvar’s Todo Sobre mi Madre, we have much to look forward to from Spainish cinema at the moment.

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