Carla’s Song (1994): Loach’s Intimate Tale, Set against the Contra War in Nicaragua

Robert Karlyle gives a terrific performance in Ken Loach’s intimate political tale, Carla’s Song, written by frequent collaborator Paul Laverty, and dealing with the Contra War in Nicaragua.

Set in 1987 Glasgow, the story centers on the friendship between a Scottish bus driver, George Lennox (Carlyle), and Carla (Oyanka Cabezas), a Nicaraguan refugee.

George first meets Carla when she sneaks onto his bus without paying. They go out for coffee but Carla is hesitant to tell George anything about her background. George arranges for her to stay at his friend’s place.

The next time they meet, Carla had slit her wrists and is rushed to the hospital.  He learns that Carla had already attempted suicide. George stays by Carla’s side in the hospital while she recovers.

Carla relates how reading the horrifying letters from her boyfriend Antonio (Richard Loza), motivated her to take her own life. Carla doesn’t know what happened to Antonio or to her family. Haunted by suffering, she seems to be a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder. George decides they need to return to a war-torn Nicaragua to find out Antonio and Carla’s family.

George then learns and about the U.S.-sponsored Contra insurgency against the Sandinistas.  In Nicaragua, they find Bradley, an American aid worker, helping other U.S. citizens document human rights abuses by the Contras.

When the truck engine explodes, Carla breaks down, and George tries to comfort her.  Carla has terrible night horrors where she relives the experience of being attacked by the Contras. In the nightmare, Carla is shot in the back yet manages to flee while the Contras descend on Antonio who falls after being shot.

On the way to Carla’s family, some Sandinistas warn them that there are Contra fighters in the area. Carla finds her family and introduces George to them. Later that night, heavily armed Contras attack the village. The Contras kill many people and huge explosions go off around the village, while Sandinista villagers return fire.

George discovers that Carla and Antonio have a baby daughter. George asks Carla to return to Glasgow with him and bring the baby, but she refuses.

The Contras, operating out of Honduras, are a CIA-organized and funded group. Antonio is captured and tortured by the Contras; they cut out his  tongue, break his spine with rifle butts, and pour acid on his face, all harrowing events seen from POV of Carla, who’s hiding.

George breaks down when he hears what Carla has suffered through.  He gets a letter from Carla’s family that informs him that she is heading north to find Antonio.

George steals a bus and Bradley joins him to help find Carla. They head to Bradley’s village and find Carla in a room, terrified of reuniting with Antonio. George encourages her to visit Antonio by herself.

In the last, emotional scene, Antonio, his face disfigured from the acid mutilation, sits on a stool in Bradley’s house.  He begins to play his guitar, and Carla joins him, singing her song.