July 16, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Nathalie Álvarez Mesén
Spanish with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed small town in Costa Rica, the dramatic film “Clara Sola” has an all-Latin cast representing the working-class.
Culture Clash: A repressed 40-year-old woman, who is seen as a faith healer in her small town, has an awakening when her teenage niece begins a romance with a man who’s a visiting farm worker.
Culture Audience: “Clara Sola” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about how religion and sex influence people’s lives and identities.
The dramatic film “Clara Sola” is often as gloomy and slow-paced as the life of the movie’s title character: a quiet 40-year-old woman who experiences a sexual awakening around the same time as a religious reckoning. The movie’s riveting final third, which is the best part, makes up for a lot of the sluggishness. Viewers must have a lot of patience and no distractions while watching “Clara Sola,” in order for the film to have its most significant impact.
Directed by Nathalie Álvarez Mesén (who co-wrote the “Clara Sola” screenplay with Maria Camila Arias), “Clara Sola” had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. “Clara Sola” is Álvarez Mesén’s feature-film directorial debut. She previously directed short films, two of which were segments in the 2021 anthology movie “Upon Her Lips: Heartbeat” and the 2020 anthology movie “The Swedish Boys.”
“Clara Sola” is the epitome of a “slow burn” film that immerses viewers into the interior life of the movie’s title character. Her birth name is Clara (played by Wendy Chinchilla Araya, in her movie acting debut), but she later tells someone that her secret name is Sola, which means “alone” in Spanish. Even though Clara lives with family members, she is very much a loner who is treated as “different” by everyone around her.
Clara lives with her domineering, widowed mother Fresia (played by Flor María Vargas Chavez) and Clara’s two underage nieces: María (played by Ana Julia Porras Espinoza) and Lucía (played by Laura Román Arguedas). They all live in a shabby house in a small, unnamed town in Costa Rica. María is 14 years old but turns 15 during the course of the story. Lucía is about 10 or 11 years old.
It isn’t revealed until much later in the movie that Clara’s deceased sister Angela was the mother of María and Lucía. How and when Angela died are details that are never discussed or revealed in the movie. Viewers can only speculate how this death affected the family. The father of María and Lucía is not seen or mentioned. Fresia is such a dominant force in Clara’s life, she even decides the outfits that Clara will wear in public.
Clara doesn’t talk a lot, but it’s obvious that she is an unhappy and lonely person. The closest thing she has to a friend or companion is her beloved white mare Yuca. The importance that Yuca has to Clara becomes more evident as time goes on in this story. This horse represents more to Clara than just being a domesticated pet. Yuca represents freedom and the only living being whom Clara thinks knows the real Clara.
Fresia makes a living by operating a small business that gives horse-riding tours in the area, mostly to tourists. The family owns about five or six horses, and Yuca is one of the horses used for these tours. Fresia has male employees who conduct the tours. She also hires men to do work around the family’s farm-like property, which is in a somewhat remote wooded area.
After the first 10 minutes of the movie, it’s obvious that Clara is treated like a “special” member of the family. Even though Clara is 40 years old, she has the mannerisms of a shy and awkward teenage child. For reasons left unexplained, Clara’s mother has convinced people in this rural community that Clara has religious superpowers that give Clara the ability to heal all illnesses, including cancer.
Fresia also says that the Virgin Mary channels her powers through Clara. Don’t bother getting an explanation for how long Fresia has been telling people that Clara is a medium for the Virgin Mary and can cure deadly diseases. There is no explanation. But the town is ruled by its religion, which is never stated out loud, but is presumably Roman Catholicism. The townspeople treat Clara like a miracle worker/faith healer when she goes to church ceremonies.
“Clara Sola” stumbles the most by not giving any plausible explanations for why Clara is considered a miraculous faith healer. Who exactly has she “cured”? Are any of these people still around to give testimony about these healing “miracles”? Don’t expect the movie to answer these questions.
Because the Virgin Mary is such an integral part of Clara’s identity as a faith healer, there’s a shrine to the Virgin Mary inside the family’s modest house. Fresia has also convinced people, including Clara, that the Virgin Mary can talk to Clara. And so, when Clara goes to church, she is often expected to pass on messages to the parishioners that she claims to have gotten from the Virgin Mary.
Clara has a spinal deformation, so she wears a back brace that Clara says is very painful. María and Fresia accompany Clara to a doctor’s appointment, where the doctor (played by Ana Patricia Apú Bolaños) recommends that Clara have back surgery to correct the deformation. The surgery would be at no cost to the family, because it’s covered under Costa Rica’s universal health care that’s provided to all citizens and permanent residents of Costa Rica.
The doctor says with firm compassion that the surgery would improve Clara’s quality of life, because “Clara would be able to walk upright” without the use of a back brace. María begs Fresia to let Clara have the surgery, but Fresia refuses. Fresia says about Clara: “God gave her to me like this. She stays like this.” María reminds Fresia that María was allowed to get surgery to correct María’s teeth. Fresia says that’s because María is not like Clara.
There are obvious signs that Clara has been convinced to be as much like the Virgin Mary as possible, ever since Clara was a child. For example, it soon becomes apparent that Clara has no experience in dating and is still a virgin. Now that María is growing into a young woman, Clara is starting to see firsthand some of the things that Clara has been missing in her life.
One day, a man in his late teens or early 20s named Santiago (played by Daniel Castañeda Rincón) shows up at the family home because he’s been hired at a nearby farm to “help out during the high season,” he says. Santiago doesn’t plan to stay in the area for very long. He is introduced to Fresia, in case she needs to hire him for any extra help. And she eventually does.
Santiago and María begin flirting with each other almost immediately. Their mutual attraction leads to them meeting each other for dates. Clara quietly observes this blossoming relationship from afar and sometimes up close when she spies on Santiago and María going on dates and showing public displays of affection. Eventually, the relationship between Santiago and María becomes sexual.
The movie makes no mention of the age difference between María and Santiago. In Costa Rica, 15 is the minimum legal age of consent for someone to have sex with an adult. María will soon turn 15, so it’s probably one of the reasons why no one in the family objects to María dating an older man. María’s quinceañera (Hispanic culture’s celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday) becomes a big part of the story.
After a while, it’s apparent that Clara is starting to feel some kind of attraction to Santiago too, but Clara doesn’t quite know how to express this attraction to him. She’s also having sexual feelings that result in her exploring masturbation, even though she’s been taught that masturbation is “sinful” for someone like her. There are several other indications that Clara has “arrested development” and has not had sex education that teaches healthy boundaries of what’s appropriate and inappropriate.
For example, the movie has an awkward scene where Clara asks a teenage family member named Francisco (played by Fabrizzio Josue Vallecillo Vargas), also known as Fran, if they can practice kissing. Francisco is clearly uncomfortable with this incestuous request, but he seems aware that Clara doesn’t know how wrong her request is, and he doesn’t want to scold, embarrass or lecture her. Instead, Francisco gives Clara a quick platonic smack on the lips, and the subject is never brought up again.
Santiago begins to spend more time at the family home because of María. During one of these visits, Clara sees a beetle crawling on Santiago’s back, but he doesn’t see it. Without Clara saying anything to Santiago, she removes the beetle from Santiago’s back and keeps the beetle as a pet. She names the beetle Ofir. And she affectionately takes cares for Ofir, as if he’s an extension of Santiago. The movie makes a point of showing that Clara is more relaxed and in tune with nature and non-human animals than she is with people.
On some occasions, Santiago and Clara have friendly conversations with each other. Over time, Santiago can sense that Clara might have a crush on him, but he is always polite and respectful to her, and he doesn’t take advantage of Clara’s vulnerability. In one of the conversations between Clara and Santiago, they talk about each other’s work. Santiago mainly has experience as a physical laborer. Clara makes this statement about what her job is: “I work for God.”
During another one of these conversations, Santiago opens up to Clara and says that his brother was killed in an unsolved murder. That’s the closest the movie comes to having a backstory for Santiago, who is a somewhat generic character. His main purpose in the movie is to create a possible love triangle between Clara and María. It’s possible that Clara could have had a sexual awakening some other way, but Santiago is the catalyst.
“Clara Sola” goes to great lengths to only show things from Clara’s perspective. And because Clara isn’t very skilled at communicating with people, viewers get only a limited outlook of the other people who are in Clara’s life. This narrow view is often to the detriment of the movie’s storytelling, because it makes a large portion “Clara Sola” very monotonous.
The movie gets better as Clara begins to understand that her niece Maria, who is less than half of Clara’s age, has more freedom and more life options than Clara has ever experienced. Having never been taught any skills to take care of herself, Clara also feels trapped and helpless. When Clara gets some upsetting news, it’s a turning point for Clara, who has to decide who she is and what kind of person she wants to become if she grows and matures on an emotional level.
The probability of a viewer wanting to watch “Clara Sola” until the very end will largely depend on how curious or invested a viewer is in finding out what happens to Clara. And that has a lot to do with how Chinchilla Araya plays the role. It’s an admirable but not exceptional performance. All of the other movie’s cast members do the best that they can with supporting characters that are usually two-dimensional.
“Clara Sola” has some impressive cinematography (from Sophie Winqvist) that adeptly conveys the isolating rural atmosphere that Clara has known her entire life. The movie’s ending could be open to interpretation, but viewers paying attention throughout the film will immediately know what choice was made. “Clara Sola” might feel too claustrophobic and tedious for some viewers, while others who watch the movie with an open mind will see an interesting story about the evolution of a repressed and sheltered woman.
Oscilloscope Laboratories released “Clara Sola” in New York City on July 1, 2022, and in Los Angeles on July 8, 2022. The movie was released in Sweden in 2021.