San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Beloved Indie Film Venue Sala Garbo Turns 30

Whether you love or hate San José, you’ll probably agree when I say that an independent movie house, a theater built by a former Royal Shakespeare Company actor, and a Bard-themed underground pub – all nestled in the heart of the city, just off traffic-crammed Paseo Colón – are fabulously, beautifully out of place, and very, very welcome.

Step into the Sala Garbo, newly renovated and approaching its 30th birthday, and you’re no longer in San José at all – you’re floating through Quebec on a cloud of Pink Floyd, or steaming a path through a Chinese bathhouse, or wherever else Artistic Director Nicolette Baker has chosen to take you that evening. Strike up a conversation with Baker herself, and you’ll wonder why you aren’t at the movies right now.

“Going to the cinema, I think, is a major pleasure in life, just like reading,” says Baker, 49, whose enthusiasm when describing her life’s work is contagious and makes one crave a vat of buttery popcorn. “I think video clubs are good if you’re ill, pregnant, a mother, or it’s absolutely impossible to leave the children with somebody. But otherwise…”

“You’re unreachable there (at the movies) – unless you forget to turn off your cell phone,” she adds, no doubt speaking from long experience with such offenders.

The cinema, along with the Shakespeare Bar and Gallery and the Laurence Olivier Theater, make up what has to be one of the capital’s finest city blocks. The Sala Garbo was founded in 1977 when six movers and shakers in San José’s art community got together to found Isthmo Film, which produced several original films during the six-year collaboration, and the Sala Garbo, which then, as now, was a showcase for independent film.

That group of six included author Carmen Naranjo, filmmaker Oscar Castillo, National Theater Director Samuel Rovinski, independent television producer Antonio Iglesias, future Nicaraguan Culture Minister Sergio Ramírez, and Baker’s father, Nicholas Baker. The British actor and his wife, Annie Manley, Costa Rican-born but of British  descent, had moved to Costa Rica with their daughter when she was 7.

“One by one, each one of the founders quit because they wanted to pursue their own interests,” Baker says, explaining how her father eventually became the sole owner.

In 1983, Nicholas Baker asked his daughter, who had just graduated from the University of Warwick, England, with a degree in film and literature, to help him run the theater; she’s been the artistic director ever since.

“I choose the films and he does the buying,” she says of her partnership with her father, now 74.

In 1987, the elder Baker, who couldn’t perform onstage here because of his limited Spanish but has worked as a director, founded the Laurence Olivier Theater. (Laurence Olivier himself was too ill to attend the inauguration, Nicolette Baker explains.)

The Shakespeare Bar, where posters and information about the playwright ring the walls and where the cozy, chic decor invites you to enjoy a Stella Artois or Forbidden Fruit beer before or after your movie, completes the picture, holding occasional art exhibitions.

Little else changed until this year, when the Sala Garbo experience got a whole lot more comfortable. The theater’s first-ever renovation, carried out during Easter Holy Week, has rewarded moviegoers with new, plush seats and a new screen.

Granted, for a true independent-film lover, a little discomfort from a stiff chair or cramped legs is a small price to pay, and even adds to the virtuous feeling one gets from sidestepping the standard blockbuster fare. But that didn’t stop the Bakers from taking patrons’ grumbling to heart.

“They were too close together,” Baker admits of the old seats. “The person in front of you was sitting in your lap. It used to be 250 seats and now it’s 200, so there’s more leg room.”

The renovations also included an air-conditioning system, and the new screen is another welcome change, she added.

“Can you imagine a 30-year-old screen?” she says with a laugh. “It had done its job, by far.”

According to Baker, appreciation for and availability of independent films in Costa Rica have certainly increased during her tenure as artistic director. Films such as “Notes on a Scandal,” which premiered last week in Costa Rica, now make it to the country’s larger chains, which wouldn’t have happened 30 years ago.

Asked whether her job finding good small films is easier today, she says it’s simply different.

“With the fall of the socialist bloc, the Sala had to reprogram its films,” she explains.

“Up until 1986, we had Russian film festivals with packages of 10 films, Czech films, Hungarian films … But now Russia doesn’t produce many films anymore, without the state backing. The same with Cuba.”

Because of this change, Baker, who names as some of her favorite films “The Return” (Russia) and “The Color of Paradise” (Iran), now chooses more films from Iraq, Iran, Vietnam,Morocco, France, “the odd English film … anything that’s independent.”

The cinema’s next premiere, “The Libertine,” starring Johnny Depp and John Malkovich – worth seeing even if you’ve watched it on video, because “it’s so dark and gloomy, you have to be at the cinema to really enjoy it,” Baker asserts – will take place April 25.

Movie tickets cost ¢1,700 ($3.30); ¢1,200 ($2.30) for students and seniors. For show times and information, call the Sala Garbo at 222-1034 or 223-1960 (Av. 2, Ca. 28).


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