Dancer Wendy Chinchilla Araya plays an intellectually stunted faith healer seeking her own salvation in Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s debut.
In some ways, Clara (Wendy Chinchilla Araya) is the most liberated woman in the green, remote, and deceptively matriarchal Costa Rican village where she works for God. A semi-feral 40-year-old who – according to legend – was once visited by the Virgin Mary, Clara was molded into a faith healer by her ultra-religious mother (Flor María Vargas Chaves as Freesia), who successfully renamed her Daughter’s Curved Spine and childlike intellect as symptoms of divinity.
Apart from miracles on demand, little is expected of her. Clara is free to spend her days wandering the forest, grooming her beloved white horse Yuca, and making cute little houses for the beetles she finds in the wild. She is activated when someone with a few bucks on a leg needs to heal or need cancer treatment, but for the most part Clara is left to do as she pleases.
At least, as long as it doesn’t displease her mother. Fresia keeps her only surviving daughter on a tight leash, especially now that Clara’s sister – the jewel of her family – has ascended to heaven, leaving her bright-eyed daughter behind (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza plays the teenage Mariá). Clara is treated like a young girl, even though she is closer to menopause than puberty. Mariá bathes her and brushes her thick mane of black hair; Fresia chides her for sticking her head out of the car window (“you’ll get sick”) and has Clara spit out the stolen cloves she’s hiding on her tongue. She rubs chili oil on her daughter’s fingers when the telenovelas they watch at night inspire Clara to rub her touch-me-not.
Even more disturbing is that Fresia is denying Clara the free surgery that would straighten her spine. “God gave her to me like that,” she explains. That may be true, but it won’t be so easy for Fresia to keep her that way over the course of Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s nuanced and extraordinarily feverish “Clara Sola,” a “Carrie”-accented portrait of feminine power who takes his holy fool of a heroine striving for her own kind of religious freedom.
The tension at the heart of this grand debut is rooted in Araya’s Butoh-esque performance (the professional dancer’s first role), which more than lives up to its potential to cast someone with such exquisite control over her body in the role of a disabled woman who has so little control over her life.
From the flowery opening frames of Clara reaching for Yuca – Araya’s hands reaching for the sky as if trying to pull the horse closer as they hope to escape from her wrists – “Clara Sola” is filled with a sense that love and repression are at hand. braided together. It is tied to the feeling that we are choking the things that are most dear to us to keep them from getting away. Mesén’s feverish dream of a movie is a wiry fable about a woman who has been made to feel that she is both not enough and everything. Mesén’s feverish dream of a film may be steeped in Catholic religiosity, but ultimately places what remains of her faith in the act of letting go.
That’s easier said than done for the women of Vara Blanca, including Clara. Together they struggle to let go of the patriarchal systems that have disadvantaged them from time immemorial (there is an element of self-denial in how Fresia, Clara and Mariá have embraced their respective roles as mothers, mystics and minor temptations before this story begins and a man turn everything upside down).
Individually, they suffocate each other without malice. Freesia may be irreparably flawed to some extent, but even the most agonizing decisions she imposes on her daughter are scented with a desperate air of love—an air that sometimes curdles in the overprotective demeanor of a father who carries a shotgun. In its own childish way, that same dynamism is reflected in Clara’s refusal to let Yuca rent out to tourists, and in the small terrarium she builds from stray grass and a kitchen strainer for an insect she calls Ofir (probably the most endearing movie bug since the cockroach from “Wall-E”).
Mariá for her part is an unwitting participant in the patriarchy; she spends the film preparing for her climactic quinceañera and romping with her much older friend Santiago (a mild-mannered Daniel Castañeda Rincón), activities that are remarkably balanced by the script by Mesén and Maria Camila Arias. Presented with a suspicious look at its pageantry, the quinceañera inevitably becomes a venue for quasi-supernatural violence in a way that cements this (bloodless) film’s connection to “Carrie”, but the party is portrayed more as an opportunity for empowering than it is for pure horror.
Santiago, meanwhile, is made predatory by his age alone, but he is always the most tender and understanding character in the story, and the only one to recognize that Clara has more to offer than the role she was born for. “Clara Sola” doesn’t crucify the man for having sex with a 15-year-old any more than it nails Fresia for denying her daughter the surgery, but it uses the uncertainty their actions put on Clara’s life to explore how love can become her life. to bear your own cross.
If Clara threatens to implode under the strain, it’s not for lack of strength. Araya’s performance is so compelling because her shattered physicality makes the character appear simultaneously helpless and indomitable, equal parts bent and coiled, slightly fawn but haggard. That same animistic volatility can be found in the atmosphere of a film that regularly calls attention to Carla’s connection with nature, while Sophie Winqvist Loggins’ semi-frantic handheld cinematography and Ruben De Gheselle’s trembling violin score together suggest that Carla is seduced into the earth – that she gradually rejects the mortal world that had always rejected her.
It is not easy for Clara to let go of the context in which she is locked up, nor is it easy for Mesén to illustrate what that looks like; if her film ends with a familiar tone of overly contented ambiguity, that’s only so disappointing because the rest of “Clara Sola” is borne of a defiant refusal to abide by the rules laid out for it.
Oscilloscope Laboratories will release “Clara Sola” in theaters on Friday, July 1.