The title character of the remarkable Clara Sola is a 40-year-old virgin. You might also call her a middle-aged version of Sissy Spacek’s Carrie. But Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s first feature is neither a comedy nor a horror freak-out. Set in a rural village and cast with nonactors, led by a feral performance from dancer Wendy Chinchilla Araya, the drama occupies its own territory, tinged with magic realism and deeply immersed in the sensory world. It’s also a vivid reminder that even a matriarchy can be paternalistic.
Clara lives with her religious mother, Fresia (Flor María Vargas Chaves), and her teenage niece, María (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza), whose coming-of-age sparks Clara’s own awakening. But the figure she most identifies with is Yuca, the family’s unicorn-white mare. They’re both money-earning attractions: Yuca is rented out to local guides working in Costa Rica’s thriving tourist industry. Clara is offered up to worshippers as a healer who has a direct line to the Blessed Virgin.
Late blooming, richly imagined.
For these yearning-fueled gatherings with the devout and the distressed, Clara is bathed, shampooed and dressed up, like a child. Beneath her clothes, she’s trussed in a binding corset for her curvature of the spine — a condition that could be corrected with surgery, all costs covered by insurance. But Fresia refuses. She has no interest in making Clara like everyone else. “God gave her to me like this,” she tells the doctor. “She stays like this.”
Change is in the air, though, whether Fresia likes it or not. With the arrival of Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón), a new employee of a small tour company, the energy within the family of women shifts. Both María and Clara are drawn to the kind young man, but it takes the inexperienced Clara a while to recognize her feelings. Santiago’s initial encounter with a scowling Clara, when she tries to keep him from taking Yuca for a stint with tourists (“She doesn’t want to go!”), spurs him to ask María, “Is your aunt always that angry?” Her response, “If she was really angry, we’d know about it,” proves prescient.
The screenplay by Álvarez Mesén, who’s Costa Rican-Swedish, and Maria Camila Arias, who’s Colombian, spins around preparations for María’s quinceañera — the dance routines, the makeup experiments, the all-important dress that Fresia’s making, in a blue that could be Mother Mary’s color or the color of teen-girl dreams. Clara has no connection to these feminine traditions; she belongs to the earth and its creatures, the dust and cobwebs and mud. Among her instinctive gifts is a knowledge of the “secret names” of animals and people.
What’s truly special about Clara doesn’t fit into the saintly persona her mother has concocted. Fresia doesn’t want her to be ordinary, yet only so long as her outlier status is on socially acceptable terms. But, with a child’s innocence and confusion, Clara’s sensual kinship with nature is expressing itself with a new intensity, in her body. Fresia rubs Clara’s fingers in chilies before she goes to bed, a masturbation-prevention measure whose effectiveness has its limits. On the rare instances when she’s alone with a male, Clara is likely to exclaim, “Should we practice kissing?”
Santiago is imbued with riveting naturalistic sincerity by Castañeda Rincón, and the way he becomes the center of a psychosexual triangle is thoroughly convincing. His romantic involvement with María is conventional; his friendship with Clara is, in many ways, far more intimate. Intrigued by her oddness, he recognizes a stunted life aching to unfurl. In a scene between them that could be viewed as an antithetical corollary to the menstrual-blood sequence in Carrie, Santiago’s sympathy and tact are extraordinary.
Chinchilla Araya’s portrayal is a work of rough-edged but tender complexity, an uncanny combination that’s matched by the rural setting and the river that runs through it. Sophie Winqvist Loggins’ astute cinematography is crucial to the character-specific atmosphere of menace and beauty, and ranges from the unobtrusive to the darkly dazzling. In her unquenchable fever, Clara escapes to the nighttime forest, a landscape of ancient trees and fireflies, somewhere between primeval and Grimm’s fairy tale.
Álvarez Mesén, who has half a dozen shorts to her credit and contributed to two LGBTQ anthology films, Upon Her Lips: Heartbeats and The Swedish Boys, steps into feature filmmaking with assurance. In its intimate universe of the churchly and the pagan, Clara Sola conjures a memorably earthbound abracadabra.