When writer-director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén was shooting her debut feature film, Clara Sola, in rural Costa Rica, she accepted one thing — that she couldn’t control nature. "The way nature would interact with us on set, was something we couldn’t control — especially with the beetles or the white mare," she said. "You just have to let nature do its thing."
Clara Sola was shot over the course of seven weeks in the small mountain village of Vara Blanca. The film stars Costa Rican dancer and actress Wendy Chinchilla Araya as the titular Clara, a 40-year-old mystic living with her religious family in a small Costa Rican village, who have a loving but repressive lifestyle under her scolding mother, played by Flor María Vargas Chavez.
In the film, Clara has an astute connection to nature and a rebellious spirit. She loves fires, laying down in the mud, wading in the river, and freaking out the locals with her claw-like hands. "She had roots inside her body, that’s why she had hands like that, like internal nature," explains the director.
My best school for screenwriting was going to mime school; it’s so visual. I move around when I write.
Álvarez Mesén is a Costa Rican-Swedish writer-director who comes from a performance background. She started out in physical theater in Costa Rica, which was before she got a Bachelor of Fine Arts in mime acting at Stockholm University of the Arts. She then got her Master of Fine Arts in directing and screenwriting from Columbia University's Graduate Film Program.
Clara Sola premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, in the Director's Fortnight section. It went on to be Costa Rica's Official Entry for Best International Feature Film for this year's Oscars. The film has won numerous awards at film festivals around the world, and won five Guldbagge Awards, Sweden's annual film awards ceremony, including Best Film and Best Director.
The film follows Clara's sexual awakening as a misunderstood middle-aged mystic, in a family driven by patriarchal norms of how a woman should and should not behave. It’s certainly a big conversation in America today. "It's a conversation in Costa Rica, too," says Álvarez Mesén. "Abortion is illegal. The film works as a metaphor for just choosing your own body. It is about choice, in this sad, sad time."
Álvarez Mesén grew up in a family with a lot of women, like Clara does in the film. "I was very interested in how women were passing down patriarchal beliefs," she said. "I’ve internalized these norms. It's how I’ve been brought up."
Clara is rebellious though, but is she a mirror for Álvarez Mesén? "I’d say she's the person I wish I was," says the director, laughing. "It's hard to change patterns of thinking, even if I can make certain conscious choices. My own family is understanding of why my character has to be free from beliefs from a patriarchal society. To peel away things that aren’t healthy for us."
The protagonist is very much a feminist, but with Álvarez Mesén having studied mime, it’s said without words. "Clara is a feminist. Maybe she doesn’t know what it is called, but yes," Álvarez Mesén says. "In the end, it's the actions that matter. The film shows that, too."
"There is a connection between miming and directing," she explains. "It's a nonverbal connection," Álvarez Mesén elaborates. "My best school for screenwriting was going to mime school; it’s so visual. I move around when I write, it's very sound and movement based. That’s how I found Clara’s voice; through clown exercises."
The story being told in the film reminds the audience how important women’s rights are. The existence of the film itself serves as a reminder that representation on the big screen is absolutely crucial. To shine a light on Costa Rica, the filmmaker traveled to her home country to shoot Clara Sola. "It’s something that has to be learned, it’s not the default," she says. "People have to make an effort to find programs, give jobs and really look for people that don’t look like the norm for that to be normalized. It should be a requirement in films to have representation, until it’s a default."
Álvarez Mesén’s own favorite films are those that have "poetry and magical realism," she says. Magical realism is a literary genre that shows how the real world has actual magical or fantastical elements. Many Latin American writers have defined the genre – whether it’s Carlos Castaneda, Gabriel García Márquez or Alejo Carpentier.
How Álvarez Mesén defines it is different: "It's very close to nature, that’s my personal feeling," she says. "Sometimes I see a butterfly in a film and think 'oh that’s the son that died,' or maybe it's just me thinking that. It's magical realism. It's how something is portrayed, how it's poetry within the film. TheMilk of Sorrow, directed by Claudia Llosa, is a good film, and has some of that."
Álvarez Mesén is already working on her next feature film, The Wolf Will Tear Your Immaculate Hands, which is currently in development. "It's based in Latin America, and I call it 'a tropical gothic,'" she says. "Nature and sexuality were at the core of Clara Sola, and it will be in my next film, too." She recently directed an episode of Three Women that’s coming out in the fall, too, a new series that premieres on Showtime later this year.
Her biggest aspiration with cinema, however, is drawing attention to the climate crisis. "For me, the climate question is the most pressing; I keep going back to it," she shares. "It's about how humans position themselves to nature, that’s why we are where we are. My dream would be a climate-focused science-fiction film. I love sci-fi shows like The OA, Dark, and films like Interstellar. I like to call it poetic sci-fi and magical realism. They’re very close."
Her favorite thing about films is the ability of cinema to take the viewer to another world, after all. "It plants a seed in me, as a viewer," she says, "like what remains after watching is something revolutionary, even if it's small."
"Sometimes I need cinema just as an escape," she adds.
Clara Sola will screen at the IFC Center in New York until July 8, and at the Landmark Westwood in Los Angeles July 8-9.
By Nadja Sayej
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