Published September 1, 2000
At a certain age, almost everyone is inclined to see his mother as a suffering saint and his father as a bully and a tyrant. It is a part of the process of growing up and corresponds with a youth’s period of greatest need to declare independence him- or herself from the paternal tie. It ought not to be necessary to add that some fathers really are bullies and tyrants, but there are a great many more who only look like that to eyes as yet unopened by the responsibilities of full adulthood. The business is complicated, of course, by the fact that often an unsatisfactory but long-term marriage that neither party wants to end will seek to play out just such a scenario as this in order to preserve itself, the husband slipping easily into the role of the domestic Napoleon, the wife that of long-suffering victim, so that both may stay together for the sake of their respective grievances.
I don’t know how old the Spanish director, Benito Zambrano, is, but his limited filmography suggests youth, if not extreme youth. His movie, Solas (i.e. “Alone” ) not only presents us with such a putative domestic tyranny and its victims, mother and daughter, but also links the lamentable fate of both women to the traditional and “patriarchal” culture that still survives in remote parts of rural southern Spain. Nevertheless, and in spite of its political tendentiousness, I quite enjoyed the picture. Mr Zambrano, may have his own psychic axe to grind and he almost certainly does believe in that mythical “patriarchy” and its evil consequences, but he has a good eye and a good heart and, in Solas, he has made a pretty good film out of them.
It tells the story of Rosa (María Galiana), a stout, seventyish peasant woman, who accompanies her insufferable husband (Paco De Osca) to the city where her daughter lives when he goes into the hospital there for an operation. The daughter, María (Ana Fernández), is a single woman in her mid-thirties who has taken to drink as her only consolation for a life eaten up with the bitterness of her many disappointments. The first of these is that “she’s smart and wanted to study, but her father said no,” as her mother explains. “He’s old fashioned.” Now, poor, uneducated and unmarried, she has to work “cleaning up other people’s s***” To make matters worse, her pig of a boyfriend, a truckdriver called Juan (Juan Fernández), has just got her pregnant but wants nothing to do with any child. Abortion in Spain is “fast and free,” he tells her. “Women can’t complain now; my mom almost died from an illegal one…and she had to pay!”
In theory, María doesn’t disagree with this kind of political correctness about babies as a mere temporary inconvenience in the pursuit of sexual pleasure, but she finds she wants the baby, and Juan’s total unconcern with anything but his own pleasure is added to her sense of grievance against the selfishness of men in general. She cannot bring herself to tell her mother that she is pregnant, and her hopelessness only goes to fuel her alcoholism and her anger — against her father, her boyfriend, her bosses, against men in general. At one point we see her at her cleaning job late at night when no one is around just boiling over with rage: “Bastards!” she screams. “You’re all bastards.”
Zambrano isn’t going to give her any easy way out, but her mother’s peasant virtues offer some hope and, though Zambrano doesn’t emphasize this point, redeem to that extent the village “patriarchy” which is being reprised with new and in some ways worse features in the new and up-to-date urban setting where María has come to get away from it. She lives an anonymous urban life between job and bar and boyfriend and would seldom or never be at home if her mother was not visiting, let alone get to know her neighbors. One of these, an old man (Carlos Alvarez-Novoa) is befriended by her mother, even though her husband, when she visits him in hospital, claims to be able to smell another man’s scent on her. When mother and father return to the village, the old man shyly befriends María as well and unexpectedly offers hope not only for her unborn child but for the male sex — at least once its members are beyond the grand climacteric.
This is really the flaw in the film. Its gently leading María out of her emotional prison — another version of the prison that her mother can never escape — is done with great intelligence and sensitivity, but in the end the accumulated resentments that have imprisoned her are validated by the absence of any sympathetic male character apart from the old man. Zambrano also has something of the young man’s ideological edge, perhaps, and willingness to cry “Down with the system!” With a little more maturity, and the realization that comes with maturity that “the system” is all that we have, he could turn out to be a really fine filmmaker.