Clara breaks free
Clara Sola is enchanting. Its frames that explore lush green places in the lap of nature, a tender story, meticulous character sketches and screenplay — it is a convergence of many perfect things.
Clara Sola is a rare cinematic experience, something you need to soak in, sitting in a theatre, on the big screen, shrouded in darkness. The debut feature film by Nathalie Álvarez Mesén, a Costa Rican-Swedish director, was the winner of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), which concluded recently
Clara Sola is enchanting. Its frames that explore lush green places in the lap of nature, a tender story, meticulous character sketches and screenplay — it is a convergence of many perfect things. Clara is a 40-something woman living in rural Costa Rica. She is intellectually challenged, almost childlike, with a deformed spine. But she is the healer of the village, deeply connected to God. Hopeless, destitute, sick village folk from everywhere come to her for help. Her mother Fresia, also Clara’s manager and keeper, supervises the entire process. Clara has been brought to life by Wendy Chinchilla, who can speak plenty, even while she is still.
When Clara’s spinal illness started crushing her lungs, the doctors suggested surgery can save her. But Fresia, played by Flor María Vargas Chaves, objects. “God gave her like this to me,” she stubbornly says. When a new caretaker arrives at her farm, something in Clara awakens. Clara Sola is her tale — the story of a middle-aged woman, her sexual awakening and healing.
“I had Clara in my mind since 2013. I was studying films then. Over time, her story kept getting bigger and bigger, until she became a whole person,” says Mesén. The young director started off studying mime in Sweden. She gradually shifted to theatre productions. But her goal was always cinema. Since when she was a child holding her father’s hand and visiting the cinemas, Mesén has been in love with the silver screen. So, after working in theatre productions for a while, she decided to study filming in the US.
This is when Clara, a mystical woman in a village, occurred to her. Fresia wants to preserve Clara’s powers at all costs. She believes faith is possible only with suffering, an important part of her spiritual path. The devout Christian believes in Clara’s mystic energy, her connection to Virgin Mary, and her healing prowess. It is also the family’s livelihood and that is why Fresia is adamant about Clara’s abstinence — not just deliberate disruption, she makes sure Clara never grows sexually.
“There is perpetual movement in her. Even when she is still, she is moving. Her eyes, placement of her fingers, the way she holds her body — it’s all a dance. That is why I wanted whoever plays Clara to be a dancer or martial artist,” says Mesén. She was leaning more toward a dancer when she found Wendy. “She is a contemporary dancer and the first casting in the movie,” the young director adds.
The entire cast comprises natural actors, says Mesén. “Daniel Castañeda Rincón plays Santiago, the new animal caretaker at Clara’s home. I found him at a farmer’s market. He was helping his father set up a bread counter. I immediately asked him if he wanted to audition for a movie,” quips Mesén. Daniel subtly shows Santiago’s emotions. “Flor is a devout Christian in real life. I made sure she understood the movie’s message. She was fine with it,” Mesén says.
Though Clara grows up on the farm, Mesén’s childhood in Costa Rice was not really in tune with nature. “I connected with nature when I was in Sweden, which gets sunlight only a few days in a year. People come out and soak nature in on those days. They go camping and take walks. I started enjoying nature more too. When I went back to Costa Rica for vacation, I saw the country from a new perspective,” says Mesén.
In Clara Sola, ironically, women are the patriarchal figures. Clara is constantly under her mother’s thumbs. The men are tender, especially Santiago. “The stories of men controlling women have been told many times. But women also become gatekeepers of patriarchy. This is the story of a mother who stunts her daughter’s growth while Santiago ends up being a presence of kindness,” Mesén explains.
Magical realism makes Clara powerful in the narrative. She finds hope, determination and life through magic in the bosom of nature. The climax, where Clara tries to heal herself, has been portrayed poetically. “The audience perceives the scene in a certain way. But Clara’s experience here is shown in an entirely defferent dimension. She is healing, finding herself. What we are offered is a different perspective,” Mesén says. This is true. It plays like two parallel scenes — one is Clara’s truth and the other is the many questions viewers have.