By Owen Gleiberman
Updated September 15, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

American movies are now so ruled by noise and irony and bluster that simple sadness has all but disappeared from them. It took me several minutes to adjust to the plainspoken forlorn quietude of Benito Zambrano’s Solas, a small-scale heart tugger that was nominated for 11 Goya awards (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscar). The star, Ana Fernández, has silky raven hair, tapered aristocratic features, and eyes of deep black sexy woe; she looks like the sort of fiery hellcat you’d expect to see cast as a manic-depressive newscaster in one of Pedro Almodóvar’s Telemundo-on-peyote tragicomedies. In Solas, however, she plays a desperate sliver of humanity named María, who works as a cleaning woman, drinks whiskey alone in her mildewy apartment, and punishes herself by dating a brutish cad who uses her for sex. María, for all her snappish anger, is almost totally passive, and so is Solas. That’s its modest, dawdling, neo-neorealist appeal — and also its limitation.

Set in a poor unnamed city in southern Spain, the movie introduces us to several other lives of quiet desperation. There’s María’s long-suffering saintly mother (María Galiana), who comes to stay with her while María’s cantankerous wretch of a father (Paco De Osca) recovers from surgery, and there’s the kindly, white-bearded, incredibly lonely old man (Carlos Alvarez-Novoa) who lives in the same building. Two of these characters end up rescuing each other in the unlikeliest of ways, which lends Solas, after all of its sadness, a tender redemptive glow. What that resolution can’t quite redeem is the movie’s lack, up until that point, of even a minimal degree of drama. B-