Capsule plot summaries can be misleading. The one for Clara Sola might say – a woman around 40 in a Costa Rica village has a sexual awakening. It’s more or less what the one on the IMDb says. And it’s not wrong, that is what happens.
But the story, that’s a different thing altogether. And in fact the whole point of this debut by Nathalie Álvarez Mesén is in what isn’t being said rather than what is. The plot is straightforward but story lies scattered between the cracks, just slightly out of reach. It’s ambiguous, entirely, in almost every respect.
Clara is a pretty woman and might, at her age, expect to be married with children. But she isn’t. Because she’s special, “touched by god”, as the saying used to go, a simpleton who lives with her aged mother and niece. Clara is possessed of a talent for communicating with animals. It’s said she can heal the sick, that she has a direct link with the Virgin Mary. She also has a spinal deformity which her mother won’t let her have fixed through surgery (even though the insurance will pay). Mesén and co-writer Arias leave in the realm of speculation the reasons for her mother’s objections. Maybe she doesn’t trust doctors. Maybe her religious beliefs won’t allow it. Or maybe a less dependent, less “special” Clara would be of less value as a local religious attraction.
As to Clara herself, in an expressive performance which nevertheless keeps everything under wraps, Wendy Chinchilla Araya makes Clara a woman who is at least as feral as she is spiritual and also something of a mystery. Maybe Clara is smarter than she’s letting on. Maybe she’s playing along with her mother’s game, for powerplay reasons of her own (that’s if it is a game).
The pivot on which the film turns is the arrival of Clara’s niece, Maria (an entirely natural, free-flowing Ana Julia Porras Espinoza), at an age when men start to find her attractive. She’s about to turn 15. And one local man in particular, Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón), has noticed. He’s also got half an eye for Clara. The suspicion is that he’d half half an eye for anything in a skirt.
Santiago is the only significant male in this female enclave and hovers throughout on the periphery of the existence of Clara, her stern mother Fresia (Flor Mariá Vargas Chavez) – the not-gullible, not-spiritual Santiago acting as a counterweight to a domain where religion takes the place of many unexpressed emotions, or squashes them.
Clara, Santiago, Maria, a little threeway dance of sorts develops, with one of the players said to be in touch with higher powers, one of them too young to fully appreciate what’s in play.
This is a film of exquisite, simple good looks, the beauty of the everyday – the lush forest, the tidy but simple interiors, healthy strong faces – caught by the camera of Sophie Winqvist, who is becoming a name to watch. After making a feature debut with Aniara, the great sneaks-up-on-you Scandinavian sci-fi movie from 2018, and following up with Pleasure, Ninja Thyberg’s tough, headline-catching drama about life in the porn biz, she makes it three in a row with Clara Sola. With an eye for nature and an approach that’s bold and yet offbeat, if she’s not a fan of Terrence Malick I’d be surprised.
There is also hint of Carrie in Clara Sola, another story of an overlooked (though obviously much younger) female forcibly discovering something about herself, a story of the mundane and the magical together in one place. But even saying that tilts expectations too far towards the obvious. This isn’t a film about the obvious.
This was Costa Rica’s submission for the best foreign language movie Oscar. It didn’t make it past the longlist but that’s still quite an achievement for a debut feature. Nathalie Álvarez Mesén will be back.
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