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Love Thy Neighbor 

An elderly newcomer is the powerful catalyst of the humanist Solas

The wonder of Solas, the latest in a growing list of remarkable Spanish films that have recently made their way to the U.S. (Butterfly and Goya in Bordeaux are also both well worth seeing), is a courtly old gentleman referred to simply as Neighbor. Played to absolute perfection by Carlos Alvarez-Novoa, an Andalusian stage actor in his first starring film role, the neighbor is not even the story's main character. Yet he is the catalyst for everything good that happens to the two women who lie at the center of writer/director Benito Zambrano's unexpectedly moving debut film.

Solas (Spanish for "alone") concerns María (Ana Fernández), an embittered woman of 35 who lives alone in a depressed area of a nameless Spanish city. Water-stained walls, the sound of a dripping faucet and cupboards empty save for liquor bottles communicate all we need to know about the apartment's inhabitant. You can almost smell the mildew. Ironically, María herself works as a cleaning woman, scrubbing high-rise office suites while cursing the executives who pass her by without acknowledging her. She detests the job and spends most of her off-hours drinking to forget, all the while abusing the few people who are kind to her and courting those who aren't. María's face would be considered exceptionally pretty were it not for the hatred and resentment that cloud her features and dominate her personality. She is so angry at the world that all her beauty is lost.

When her father comes to the city for surgery, María, who is not on speaking terms with him, reluctantly agrees to let her mother stay at her tiny apartment. Rosa (María Galiana), who comes from a generation of selfless wives who silently accept their husband's abusive authority, is a quiet, accommodating woman, but her eyes miss nothing. She knows her daughter is unhappy and reaches out to her the only way she knows how, wordlessly but patiently and nonjudgmentally.

Rosa befriends another tenant in María's apartment building, an old man (Alvarez-Novoa) who is kind, decent and respectful -- everything Rosa's husband is not -- and who staves off his own loneliness with his canine companion, a German shepherd named Achilles. It is the neighbor who gives this film its ultimate beauty and pathos.

Solas, which won five Goya Awards (the Spanish equivalent to the Oscars), is a story of love and redemption, but it isn't an easy film to sit through, not only because it is unrelentingly grim for such a long stretch but also because for the first half there is no one for the viewer to attach to emotionally. María doesn't let anyone in, not even the audience (a testament to Fernández's exceptionally fine performance), and Rosa, although clearly a sympathetic figure, is difficult to connect with on a deeper level. The fact she allows herself to be so bullied by her husband is hard to understand, although some viewers may find they are able to.

The personal and societal problems that Zambrano lays bare -- poverty, loneliness, cruelty, the plight of the elderly -- are not limited to any one nation. Although the film's geographic location is never mentioned, the director himself was born in Seville, and the film was made with a predominantly Andalusian cast and crew. Interestingly, this is the same region that gave birth to such culturally and politically important artists/ social critics as Pablo Picasso and the playwright Federico Garcia Lorca.

Late in the film, just when everything seems to be drawing to a close, the story suddenly takes off in a most unexpected direction. It is the picture's saving grace -- writer/director Zambrano's gift to us and to his characters. The film has taken its own time and followed its own path, and the emotional payoff is far beyond what one could have anticipated from what preceded it. Perhaps because the 35-year-old Zambrano is still a fairly young man who has not yet lost his idealism, the film sets out to do more than simply expose the harsh realities of life. It offers antidotes, if only we will open ourselves up to them. It is Zambrano's humanist convictions that save this film -- that and the magnificent performance of Alvarez- Novoa.

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