Swedish-Costa Rican director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén explores female desire and emancipation using non-professional actors
After its premiere at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight in 2021, Clara Sola became one of the most talked about debuts, touring the world festival circuit to rave reviews. With all this in mind, the Swedish-Costa Rican director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén has deservedly joined in the newly formed canon of regional female filmmakers, alongside names such as Paz Fábrega and Valentina Maurel. Even though festival audiences find themselves peculiarly mesmerised with the unflinching honesty vested in such unruly women protagonists, the general release of these works still remains a challenge for English-language distribution networks. The fact that Clara Sola still managed to make its way to London cinemas beyond festival exclusivity should be your first incentive to give it a go.
Álvarez Mesén puts her trust in two things: women and nature. Therefore, the decision to set this ambiguous tale in her native Costa Rica seems intuitive. The foggy outskirts of Vara Blanca, a town north of San José, are in themselves an idiosyncratic cosmos fashioned out of landscapes and fictitious borders: some geographical, others religious. Clara (Wendy Chinchilla Araya, in her first role) is the town healer, the power vested in her presumably by God also leaving her at the mercy of conservative values. At age 40, she is still looked after by her mother, who also refuses her a much-needed spinal surgery in the fear that her daughter might somehow lose her saintly “purity,” and she has a pronounced aversion to touch. At the decisive point when her white mare Yuca is about to be sold, Clara finds herself ready to evaluate what’s worth fighting for in a growing relationship to her own body.
Desire is mimetic and sexuality can find its fuel in the most unexpected of places. Clara Sola locates its kernel of yearning in jealousy and voyeurism as soon as its protagonist sets her eye on her niece Maria’s (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza) new boyfriend. The figure of Santiago as the only secondary male character in the film is, therefore, little more than a sketch of a character to drive Clara’s desire out of its hiding place. She sees his face everywhere, succumbing to ravenous daydreams which we never get to see, but feel; she knows where he lives based only on the number of houses one has to pass by to get there; this lust is primordial in its origin and ephemeral in its expressions.
The film is abundant with luscious, moist sequences of handheld mystique, whose life force imbue every second of it with inarticulate longing: to be one with nature. Lensed by DoP Sophie Winqvist Loggins (who also shot Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure), Clara Sola is invested in the horizontal relationship between humans, nature, and animals, all of which deserve attentive, affective close-ups and equally long takes. The haunting score by Ruben De Gheselle wraps up a seemingly impenetrable world, but one that is layered with the sounds of a world awakening as much as Clara is.
Director Álvarez Mesén makes room for ambiguity in the way she deals with interpersonal female relationships, hinting at the role of control, contempt, and envy inherited by the patriarchal order, which is then interiorised by the women themselves. Some of these issues, however, beg for more elaboration within the context of Clara being a largely unknowable but intuitive protagonist, and at times the audience is being asked to assume too much: about motherhood, about the destructive force of female desire. However, none of this can take away the inquisitive pleasure of submerging oneself in the elusive beauty of Clara’s world: a story of women’s fury told as a sensual delight one cannot say no to.
Clara Sola is released in UK cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema on November 18.Where to watch