Carla’s Song

Director: Ken Loach

Ken Loach follows his highly acclaimed Land and Freedom with another story combining issues of personal choice and international politics. The first half of Carla’s Song is set in eighties’ Glasgow and focuses on a good-humoured, free-spirited bus driver who’s not averse to crossing swords with fussy officials or blinkered taxi drivers. One such run-in brings George (Robert Carlyle) into contact with Carla (Oyanka Cabezas), an aloof Nicaraguan refugee with poor English and little money. Intrigued by and clearly attracted to this stranger in a strange land, George befriends Carla and a tentative romance begins. Shocked to discover during their first intimate scene together that this attractive young woman bears mental and physical scars inflicted in her war-torn homeland, George determines that they should both travel to Nicaragua to confront the situation and see if their relationship can be worked out.
As loach had said, Carla’s Song is a film about the possibilities of people when they decide they will be together. It’s also, of course, a political film about the terrible situation in Nicaragua when the C.I.A.-backed Contras were using brute force to oust the democratically elected Sandinista government. Few people would disagree with the film’s critical view of the violence and abuse of human rights perpetuated by the right-wing Contras and their U.S. supporters. Crucially, though, the politics are firmly grounded by Loach in his detailed and gently moving depiction of the very real experiences of his characters.
Loach’s cinema combines documentary and fictional elements to create what critic James Monaco described as a basic narrative style situated halfway between storytelling and reportage. This approach is still evident in the relatively expensive recent features, with their rough-edged visuals (it’s no accident that Loach’s current cameraman, Barry Ackroyd, has a background in documentaries) and naturalistic performances. Loach may have a preference for unfamiliar faces, but Carla’s Song proves that he can achieve similar results with established stars. It’s fascinating here, for example, to see the excellent Robert Carlyle from Trainspotting – where he played a terrifying psychopath – completely transformed into the familiar Loach working-class male, with his winning combination of no-nonsense principles and emotional vulnerability.
Equally interesting is the use of Scott Glenn, star of such Hollywood blockbusters as Silence of the Lambs and The Hunt for Red October, here playing an American Human Rights worker and delivering an impassioned speech about the C.I.A.’s role in the war.
One reason for the success of Loach’s films is that their political force grows naturally out of character and incident and is not simply imposed from outside. There is also the director’s deeply-felt respect for his protagonists and his compassionate portrayal of their journeys through history. All these qualities are present in Carla’s Song, which is both a reflection on the burden of the past and a celebration of the almost transcendent power of the human spirit.

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