A sad paradox of being a woman in this world is that the more one is exalted — as a goddess, a saint, a provider — the less one is allowed to be a person, flawed and whole. Such is the predicament of the heroine of Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s debut feature, “Clara Sola.”
Clara (Wendy Chinchilla Araya) is a 40-year-old woman, with a childlike, volatile nature. She lives in a verdant Costa Rican village with her mother, Fresia (Flor María Vargas Chaves), and her niece, Maria (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza). Because Clara is believed to have been blessed with healing powers by the Virgin Mary, she is trussed up and trotted out by Fresia to help visitors seeking miracles, and guarded fiercely as a model of purity. Fresia won’t let Clara get surgery for a spinal problem (“God gave her to me like this,” she declares), and she rubs Clara’s fingers in chilies to prevent her from masturbating.
As the arrival of a handsome horse-wrangler sets off a slow, feral combustion in Clara, the film unfolds as a familiar drama of sexual awakening amid religious repression (with cues from “Carrie,” no less). But “Clara Sola” compels when it dwells in its central mysteries, like Clara’s special, empathic connection to nature and animals. Araya is remarkably tender as she sinks her fingers into the earth or gingerly lifts bugs off the ground, while Sophie Winqvist Loggins’s hushed, soft-focus camerawork imbues these moments with an almost spiritual grace.
Is Clara neurodivergent, thus prompting her mother’s coddling, or has her deification had a stunting effect on her social capacities? Does she truly have otherworldly powers, or is she just attuned to the world differently? With its elliptical telling, “Clara Sola” leaves these questions unresolved, gently balancing between magic realism and the more tragic, sobering realities of our world.