My final post from ¡Viva! 28 is another début feature, another film made by a creative team led by women in key roles – and it’s a cracker, one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Writer-director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén was born in Sweden. Her mother is from Costa Rica and her father from Uruguay. Nathalie went to Costa Rica as a child and returned to Sweden to go to university. (See this interview on Cineuropa) She has benefited from various film festival projects because her short films attracted critical attention. Clara Sola screened in the Director’s Fortnight programme at Cannes in 2021. I’m not sure I have seen a Costa Rican film before. I know little about the country, only that it has a reputation as a stable democracy, with good education and healthcare and has become known for eco-tourism.
Clara Sola is a narrative in which a woman has been recognised in a small, tight-knit community as having powers which bring her close to the Virgin Mary. It is believed that she can heal the sick and she becomes an important figure in religious festivals and community events. In such cases the woman is usually young and in danger of being exploited. In this case, however, Clara is older at around 40 and appears to have some form of social difficulty, perhaps she is somewhere on the autistic spectrum? She is under the control of her mother, Fresia, who she lives with alongside her niece in a house in the wooded mountains. The three women also have relatives in the nearest village. The narrative disruption which allows the development of a dramatic situation is linked to Clara’s niece Maria who is approaching her fifteenth birthday or quinceañera, a festival occasion which marks the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Maria’s excitement is heightened by the presence of Santiago a young man who comes on most days to hire the white mare Yuca, needed as part of tourist activities in the mountains. Clara has a close attachment to Yuca and to the local flora and fauna in general. She is therefore unhappy that Yuca is taken away, but she too is interested in Santiago, an attractive young man who befriends her and teaches her new things.
Maria’s emergence into a sexual being and her growing friendship with Santiago are followed by Clara who is slowly awakened to her own sexuality – something her controlling mother has always been anxious to curtail. Fresia goes as far as denying Clara an operation to correct a spinal deformity that affects Clara’s posture and her gait. She wants Clara kept ‘pure’, just as she was delivered by God. There is one scene involving chilli juice which will cause a wince or two for anyone familiar with preparing and cooking chillies, ouch! This is a film with not much in the way of ‘back stories’ so the audience is required to take the situation as it stands instead of wondering why this is happening to Clara now rather than twenty or more years earlier. But perhaps Clara’s late ‘awakening’ signifies her mother’s fierce control developed by a conservative religious belief?
Natalie Álvarez Mesén and her co-writer María Camila Arias (who is Colombian and co-wrote Birds of Passage, Colombia 2018) screened in ¡Viva! 25) mix several approaches to create a distinctive style. In several ways the narrative might appear to be heading for melodrama territory and the ‘return of the repressed’ as Clara begins to discover her sexuality. Instead, however, the narrative conclusion is reached almost as a calm revelation, involving magic realism. I found the ending was appropriate and somehow very satisfying.
The ideas in the script work because of the performances by the principals, all of whom are non-professionals as far as I am aware. Wendy Chinchilla Araya who plays Clara is a dancer. She must have used her knowledge of her body and control over her movements to create the awkward walk of the character. Daniel Castañeda Rincón as Santiago conveys the remarkably patient and sensitive young man very well and both Ana Julia Porras Espinoza as Maria and Flor María Vargas Chavez as Fresia are impressive. Performances by non-professionals require careful direction and this feels like a very assured début film. It is enhanced by the camerawork of Sophie Winqvist who is able to use big close-ups and beautiful long shot compositions in a CinemaScope ratio to place Clara in her environment and close to the flora and fauna she feels part of – she knows the secret names of animals. I think that the credits suggest that much of the footage was shot in the Monteverde region of Costa Rica, a region that includes the ‘Cloud Rainforest’. Beware, you’ll probably want to visit Costa Rica after watching the film.
The good news is that Clara Sola is coming to the UK, having been acquired by Peccadillo Pictures with a possible release date of September 2022. I heartily recommend it. Do try to see it on a big screen if you can.
I missed the first few minutes of this film, which was a shame as it provided a gentle introduction to the festival proper. Road movies set in Central America are not unusual but this one reverses the familiar trajectory and instead of heading North to the US, the protagonists go South to Panama from Costa Rica. César is a man past his prime but still working as a PE coach for local children. When he falls ill from heart disease his son ‘Tito’ must travel North from Panama to see him. This is a struggle for Tito who is an albino with the common affliction of poor eyesight. He has always felt a failure in the eyes of his macho father, a Panamanian of African-Caribbean consent.
When he recovers, César determines to drive his son back to Panama where he is due to participate in a regional 10 pin bowling contest. This means driving 1,000 kilometres in his beat-up Lada. Tito tries to persuade him not to try but it’s useless. On the way they pick up a young woman and her mongrel dog. César mocks his son’s inability to maintain a relationship with a woman (he was married and then quickly divorced).
Nothing much happens on the journey – or rather nothing much that is unexpected. I’m wondering about the possible national typing metaphors that the three central characters might represent. César is given a commitment to boxing like many Caribbean-Americans, Yadia is Spanish, possibly Amerindian and albinos are always significant minorities, invoking strong passions. I’m guessing that there is something I’m not picking up on. The story is presented in CinemaScope and it looks good and sounds good with an attractive music soundtrack. The film’s official website gives details on the crew with different creative inputs from Panama, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Ecuador. Director Juan Sebastián Jácome was born in Ecuador and trained in Florida. This feature debut is a strong calling card for further Central American feature production. I noted that the Panamanian producer Luis Pacheco was also involved in production on Los colores de la montaña, one of my favourite films at the !Viva¡ festival in Manchester a few year’s ago.