Clara Sola, 2021.
Co-written and directed by Nathalie Álvarez Mesén.
Starring Wendy Chinchilla Araya, Daniel Castañeda Rincón, and Ana Julia Porras Espinoza.
In a remote village in Costa Rica, Clara, a withdrawn 40-year-old woman, experiences a sexual and mystical awakening as she begins a journey to free herself from the repressive religious and social conventions which have dominated her life.
Nathalie Álvarez Mesén makes an impactful filmmaking debut in this uniquely-flavoured tale of sexual awakening in the face of overwhelming oppression.
In a Costa Rican village, 40-year-old Clara (Wendy Chinchilla Araya) is believed to have been touched by the Virgin Mary in her youth. And so, she is paraded around by her pious mother Fresia (Flor María Vargas Chaves) as an attraction of-sorts who can heal visitors’ pain.
The withdrawn, seemingly mentally afflicted Clara is also discouraged from exploring her sexuality by Fresia, who even goes to the lengths of rubbing her daughter’s fingers in chili to prevent her from masturbating. Shocking nobody, though, negatively-reinforced abstinence doesn’t work, especially once charming young horse-hand Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón) arrives in the village.
With its collision of grounded character drama and possibly-supernatural goings-on, comparisons to both Carrie and the more recent Saint Maud are inevitable, yet Clara Sola is certainly far less of a Genre Film than either of those outings.
Mesén’s focus is more strictly on Clara as a human in her element, bracing against the overwhelming repression in her midst. Religious indoctrination certainly plays a large part in defining Clara’s story, and in one giddy moment the filmmaker even verges into near-satire; Clara rolls around in the mud at a community gathering for her, staining a dress she was forced to wear, but the local zealots contort her action into one of religious piety rather than defiance.
The means through which religion controls Clara’s life extends to the abusive behaviour of Clara’s mother, who even refuses to allow Clara to have an operation to fix her violently curved spine, as if it would undermine her “specialness.”
A ripe source of comparison is Clara’s peppy 15-year-old niece María (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza), who is generally allowed to go about her business and, counter to Clara’s virginity, is soon enough embarking on a sexual relationship with Santiago, much to both Clara’s frustration and curiosity.
To Mesén’s credit, it’s never clear quite where she’s going to take the story or how far she’s going to push the possibly-metaphysical fringes, but even when it almost threatens to get a little too cute for its own good – especially in its made-to-divide ending – it is difficult to trifle with the mesmeric work of non-professional actress Wendy Chinchilla Araya.
Mesén cannily spends much of the film focused intently on Araya’s endlessly expressive face, which no matter the highly internalised nature of her performance lends so much emotion and insight to Clara’s journey. When we see a beaming smile spread across her face during a certain euphoric moment, it means all the more given how little we’ve seen it previously.
Befitting Clara’s own sensual exploration, this is a beautifully, intimately photographed piece of work, Sophie Winqvist’s gorgeously naturalistic imagery typifying how thoroughly Clara is rooted to the grass, insects, and of course the family’s beloved horse Yuca. Despite its subject matter, there’s a surprising lack of sexualised nudity on offer, but this is largely compensated for by tactile camerawork which couldn’t get much tighter on Clara and her experiences. Gritty, earthy sound design and sparing use of non-diegetic music also aid the matter-of-fact feel.
Really the only major misstep is the overabundance of near-comically unsubtle symbolic imagery; touch-me-not plants (fittingly called “shameplants” in some corners of the world), a restless white horse (a pale horse even), a pet beetle trapped underneath a sieve, and fish swimming around in a tank. The images of confinement and restriction feel a little too thickly laid, not to forget that Clara’s family home is literally decaying from within. The artsy metaphors are a bit overdone, but never enough to truly aggravate.
An intimate, sensual portrait of sexual blossoming, Clara Sola is elevated by its magnificent cinematography and a transfixing performance from first-time actress Wendy Chinchilla Araya.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.