How Costa Rican Drama ‘Clara Sola’ Became Like ‘Carrie Meets Cinderella in Latin America’

TheWrap magazine: “Both films have a very juicy release or explosion,” director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén says

A version of this story about “Clara Sola” first appeared in the International issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

First-time director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s drama “Clara Solo” mixes religion, mysticism and sexuality with its story of a woman whose deeply religious mother keeps her repressed and offers her to the townspeople as a faith healer. Sitting down with TheWrap, Álvarez Mesén shared how she began writing the film while she was in graduate school at Columbia University.

The film deals with the way this patriarchal society limits and suppresses women. When you were growing up, did you feel that your options were limited because you were female?
I wonder if anyone does not feel that. I didn’t really know what feminism was until I left Costa Rica after high school. But when I was a grown-up, I realized that as a teenager I was missing spaces to talk about… not sexuality, because that was talked about in school, but desire. Male desire, somehow, was talked about as a more natural thing, and more uncontrollable. But as a woman, I also could see sex scenes and feel urges. And this was not talked about.

So I wanted to tell the story through a character that was very honest with herself and was listening to her body — and also, a body that she sees as part of nature. We humans tend to separate us and nature, but her character sees herself as part of the whole.

Was it important to put the lead character into a family with no men? She has no agency because she’s a woman, but the restrictions are being imposed not by men around her, but by her mother.
Yeah. I think stories where men are imposing restrictions on women have been told so many times, even though they’re true. We were more interested in talking about how women are inheriting the patriarchy and how it’s ingrained in our bodies. We can break those chains that we’ve been carrying through generations – but in the case of this film, maybe we have to turn to magical realism for the character to completely liberate herself.  

Your lead actress, who is extraordinary, is a professional dancer, not an actor.
Yes. In Spanish we call them natural actors instead of non-actors, which is very beautiful. She’s a contemporary dancer. For that role, I was looking specifically for a woman who was very aware of her body. So even though the character is very, very still, there’s so many inner movements and so many images she has to work with.

As a first-time director working with natural actors, did you find particular challenges?
There are always challenges. Some days people are tired. How do you work with people’s emotions? And but we had formed a really nice little family with the actors and me, and one of the casting directors is also an acting coach who specializes on natural actors. So we worked together in creating different methods for them – not only to create the family and the characters, but also to create safety on set in terms of the emotions of the actors.  

I pitched the whole story to the actors, very detailed, especially the sensitive parts – sexual scenes, intimate scenes, or what we’re trying to say politically. For example, the mother is a very religious woman in the real world, so it was important to me that she understood and was OK with what I’m saying.

Watching the film with an American frame of reference, at a certain point toward the end I stopped thinking about magical realism and started thinking about “Carrie.”
That’s interesting, because I hadn’t seen “Carrie” before writing the film with Maria (Camila Arias). I don’t know if she had watched it. But at some point after writing it, I saw it in film school, actually. And then one of the executive producers said, “Oh, this is like ‘Carrie’ meets ‘Cinderella’ in Latin America,” or something like that.

(Laughs) It definitely has some similarities in the religious aspect and in terms of society, represented by a mother, oppressing a woman. It’s a very different genre and the storytelling structure’s very different, but definitely both films have a very juicy release or explosion.

Any time you’ve got a woman who has been repressed breaking loose and causing havoc at a gathering…
It’s the perfect place to break loose, right?

Read more from the International issue here.

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Photograph by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap