Dispatch Cannes – Clara Sola / Medusa – Awardsdaily
Taking a break in the official selection, we will discover a pair of titles from the prestigious parallel section of Cannes fifteen directors. Both from Latin America, these films transport us to the realms of myths and legends and, in doing so, shed light on the very real plight of women in a continent plagued by religious fanaticism.
In CLARA SOLA, the perfectly confident debut feature from writer / director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén, we follow the titular heroine as she navigates a life whose challenges only slowly become apparent. Clara is around 40 years old and lives in a remote village in Costa Rica with her mother and niece. When not spending her time playing with beetles or talking to her favorite horse, Clara gets dressed up by her family to be the centerpiece of a ritual that draws villagers from near and far.
Clara herself doesn’t seem to care about being put on a pedestal and worshiped by crowds of desperate strangers. And through these gatherings, which are supposed to cure all kinds of illnesses of the participants, her mother maintains the status of high priestess, revered by the local devotees. However, when her 15-year-old niece Maria finds a boyfriend in Santiago’s new farm worker, a desire is aroused in Clara and things start to get complicated.
With great naturalism and a captivating sense of detail, Mesén vividly describes an ancient world untouched by modernity. She takes you deep into the forests and mists that seem older than time, and truly makes you feel the place Clara calls home. It’s a place of raw majesty that isn’t dictated by any rule except the way things have always been. And if a woman’s sexuality is considered unworthy of godhood, extreme measures will be taken to reduce these hormones.
Turns out, in order to “preserve” her supposed healing powers, Clara was forced to lead a very lonely life. Not only is she forbidden to have romantic relationships, but she will be punished and humiliated if her mother catches her touching herself. Being denied her sexuality even as she nears middle age, Clara developed coping mechanisms that made her strange to say the least. She is introverted and chronically awkward, to the point that she cannot even walk properly. When Santiago enters his isolated life, it awakens something dormant that his controlling mother and the complicit villagers might not be ready for.
Lead actress Wendy Chinchilla Araya is sensational. Clara is a complex character in a very specific way and she understands it. Despite the laborious movements and withdrawn posture that give Clara a distinct physical personality, she never plays her for someone less than able-bodied. Instead, you never fail to notice how curious, alert, and absolutely insightful she is. It is the combination of these qualities that makes Clara so fascinating to watch. Mesén smartly keeps the narrative lean and uncluttered, keeping an explosive sparkle for the final act to make an astonishing impact.
Meanwhile, Brazilian writer / director Anita Rocha da Silveira doesn’t wait to have your undivided attention in her second feature film MEDUSA. The luscious supernatural satire opens with a girl curving abnormally backwards, spinning into ’80s electro pop sprayed with spooky neon lights. It is a shocking sight which is also frightening. Indeed, something nasty happens right away, as we witness a group of masked schoolgirls brutalize a young woman in the street, calling her a “home breuse” and a “sinful bitch”.
Later, we learn that this group of nine girls is attending an ultra-religious school and is responsible for restoring Christian values in society by seeking out and punishing “morally cowardly” women. During one of their nightly missions, one of the girls gets scars on her face and becomes obsessed with the legend of an actress whose face was set on fire before she disappeared. She is hired at a coma patient hospital in hopes of finding the missing actress, and scary things start to happen.
As the synopsis suggests, MEDUSA covers a lot of ground in different genres. There’s quite a bit of satirical humor, like the tutorial on how to take the perfect Christian selfie which I really enjoyed. As it progresses, the film traverses horror territory, focusing on ghosts and urban legends, until it reaches a high pitched final note of pure desperation. I’m not entirely sure the mix of themes and tones serves the film well, but there’s no denying that da Silveira is a thoughtful, social-minded filmmaker with a great stylistic instinct. Besides the memorable and expressive opening shot, the hospital scenes with an eerily serene atmosphere and ramshackle set design are also very effective.
Films don’t have to be about politics to be political. In both of these cases, the filmmakers tell some pretty fantastic stories that, at their core, illustrate the sexism inherent in religious societies. And it’s as real as politics can be.