By José Alberto Hermosillo
Over the last fifty years, Latin American cinema has pursued an increasing willingness to challenge virtually every aspect of its long-held institutional traditions, such that, by now, a new post-colonial, post-political, post-structural cinema has developed out of the many new critical voices and remarkable filmmakers.
Following this revolutionary impulse, “Clara Sola” joins other essential and fascinating Latin American magical realism classics such as “Erendida,” directed by Ruy Guerra in 1983, based on the novel “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndida and her Heartless Grandmother” written by Nobel Prize author Gabriel Garcia Marquez; the Mexican gastronomic delight “Like Water for Chocolate” by Alfonso Arau; the Colombian anti-war movie “The Colors of the Mountain;” the Mexican-Spanish multi-award-winning fantasy “Pan’s Labyrinth” by Guillermo del Toro;” the Oscar nominee existentialist film “Biutiful” by Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu; and more recently, the political thriller of 2019 “La Llorona” by Guatemalan award-winning auteur Jayro Bustamante; as well as the Netflix period drama set at the border of Belize and Mexico “Tragic Jungle” by Yulene Alaizola in 2020.
“Clara Sola” follows the long tradition of magical realism masterworks emanating from Latin America. It is an absorbing sisterhood drama of intrinsic beauty and intricate family bonds conjoined with some supernatural elements.
The fable of this multi-layered feature takes place in a tiny ranch in the remote village of Heredia, near the volcano Poás in Costa Rica, which houses Clara, her mother Fresia, and Maria, her niece. Each woman represents different generations, beliefs, and goals in the story.
The film’s protagonist is Clara, delicately performed by first-time actress Wendy Chinchilla Araya, a dancer now in her first significant acting role. Wendy Chinchilla is in total command of her emotions, projecting confidence to the screen with her penetrating gaze.
Clara has the gift of communicating with nature and animals – from a snake or insect to her beloved tall white horse – she says she works for God, and people believe her, and her mother capitalizes on it. Clara also has a rare spine disease that causes extenuating pain, making her escape from reality. She keeps herself grounded from the deepest recesses of her mind by finding a connection with nature.
Clara is physically abused by her repressive and religious elder mother, Fresia (Flor Maria Vargas Chavez). Clara’s precocious niece is Maria, played by Ana Julia Porras Espinoza, who is thrilled about her upcoming quinceañera.
When Maria begins dating Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón), the ranch hand, Clara – a forty-year woman who has never been with a man and is on the eve of her sexual awaking – finds herself in a sea of emotional distress. A newfound hostility overtakes Clara and her niece causes in part of the twenty-five-year gap between them and the competing desire each feels for the same man.
In “Clara Sola,” the male figure is viewed as a “breeding stallion” who can potentially please both the young teen and the older aunt. In Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 drama “Teorema,” the complications are straightforward, and the male lead has premeditated sexual advances on every member of a wealthy Italian family. By contrast, in “Clara Sola,” the circumstance is reversed - women use the rancher only for their pleasure, a very feminist point of view of the film.
|Nathalie Álvarez Mesén , Beverly Hills, California. Photo by José Alberto Hermosillo - FestivalinLA ©2021|
First-time director, Nathalie Álvarez Mesén, is Stockholm-born but has strong connections to Costa Rica, her mother’s native land, and both she and her family have lived in the Central American country for some years. She studied Mime Acting in Stockholm and film at Columbia University and was part of the Berlinale Talents program, Toronto Film Festival Filmmakers Lab, and NYFF Artist Academy. Álvarez Mesén offers an outstanding film debut with “Clara Sola.” She can direct non-professional actors as well as any established director.
Álvarez Mesén worked closely with Colombian co-writer Maria Camila Arias. They juxtaposed vivid images from childhood to adulthood, including some of the pivotal elements of the film as religion, gender roles, machismo, social circles, and inner exploration.
|Critic José Alberto Hermosillo, director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén, Beverly Hills, California - FestivalinLA ©2021|
Speaking in perfect Spanish, Álvarez Mesén informed me that she felt the project grew religiously and spiritually once the shooting began. The site’s mystical atmosphere reflects directly in the movie, and that was when she could feel the meaningful sense of community required for her film. This aura is something that Hollywood hasn’t mastered yet. Foreign directors reflect the community’s cultural elements through more intimate contact with the idiosyncrasy and lifestyle of the locals.
The film, directed, written, photographed, and edited by women, was entirely shot in Costa Rica in 35 days. All editing and post-production took place in Belgium during the pandemic.
Director of photography Sophie Winqvist Loggins lights up every scene delicately, framing the shots as open widow that can be looked at from the interior to the forest or vice versa, from the exterior into their inner spirit.
Beautifully shot in the exuberant Central American country where Universal Studios made “Jurassic Park,” the Swedish/Costa Rican/Belgium project stood as one of the best films ever made in Costa Rica and was the Costa Rican entry for the 94th Academy Awards. It also premiered at the 2021 Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes Film Festival. It won five Guldbagge Awards (Swedish Academy), including Best Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Screenplay. It also won Best Picture at various film festivals such as Cleveland, Nashville, and Denver.
The drama and passion of “Clara Sola” make us appreciate its beauty; when the film reaches its climax makes us think of the 1976 cult horror flick “Carrie,” which the director has never seen before making her feature film debut; now, she takes that as a compliment.
“Clara Sola” is one of those few slightly feminist films presenting a matriarchal lead as a “new normal,” a family that evolves from the traditional macho roles to a more inclusive society. In contrast with the Mexican horror flick “We Are What We Are” of 2010, those questions about who will succeed in the patriarchal family hierarchy are part of the movie’s conflict and reinforced within the dialogues.
“Clara Sola” sees the male lead as a mere accessory for women to use, and it is a significant feminist risk for a young woman director who is now calling the shots with this extraordinary piece of filmmaking. Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s next project is “Three Women” for Showtime.
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