When watching Clara Sola, the feature debut of Costa Rican-Swedish director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén, it’s easy to focus on surface-level comparisons to Carrie. After all, the plot revolves around a sexually stunted woman who possesses psychic abilities and lives under the domineering rule of her religious mother. However, where Carrie descends into a horrifying tale of feminine tribulation and tragedy, Clara Sola utilizes a quaint natural realism to unravel the limitations of ascribing to the feminine mystique. The film confronts the patriarchal roles cast on women from generation to generation—even when men aren’t necessarily present to pass them down. As it turns out, women will happily bestow these oppressive ideals onto their daughters in order to reinforce a societal status quo tainted by sexist notions of what constitutes a “good” woman.
In a bucolic Costa Rican village, 40-year-old Clara (Wendy Chinchilla Araya) spends her days caring for her majestic white horse Yuca and crafting makeshift lodgings for forest insects. Due to her childlike disposition and a congenital spinal curvature, Clara’s principal duty lies in being the town mystic. Her mother Fresia (Flor María Vargas Chavez) charges locals a small fee for the promise of Clara’s supposed healing powers. According to Fresia, her daughter was visited by the Virgin Mary in her youth, and has since possessed the ability to cure cancer, heal knees and mend hearts. Despite constantly touting (and materially benefiting from) Clara’s holy powers, it’s clear that Fresia is still reeling from the death of her other daughter Angela, whose own daughter María (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza) is about to celebrate her quinceañera. The young, beautiful María is doted on by her grandmother in the wake of her momentous coming-of-age celebration; meanwhile, Clara is denied a cost-free surgery that would correct her spinal issues.
“God gave her to me like this,” Fresia declares. “She stays like this.” Annoyed, María retorts, “Then I should’ve left my teeth crooked?” Barely missing a beat, Fresia merely asserts, “You’re different.”
In reality, Clara is the one who’s perceptibly “different.” Never granted adult agency by her mother or her broader community, it becomes a veritable crisis when she begins to experience intense sexual desire after a spirit-shifting tremor rumbles under the earth. In an effort to deter masturbation, Fresia rubs chili peppers on Clara’s fingers before she watches her nightly telenovela episode. Undeterred, Clara rouses in the dead of night to crouch over a running hose in an attempt to alleviate the burning. The issue intensifies when she begins to develop a crush on María’s much-older boyfriend Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón), who in turn forms an intimate friendship with Clara that borders on the erotic. A psychosexual love triangle ensues, oddly tender in its cautious clumsiness.
Clara Sola rivetingly examines a misogynistic yet matriarchal culture. Most of the people Fresia, Clara and María engage with are also women—the doctor, the event hall host for the quinceañera, Fresia’s gaggle of friends—yet the constant presence of fellow women does little to alleviate the patriarchal standards imposed on them. The doctrine of the church is all-important; the ultra-feminine pageantry of a quinceañera signals the pinnacle of womanhood; female sexual pleasure serves as an evil to be quashed. The idea of a certain feminine mystique—that women find complete fulfillment in their predestined domestic roles—is frequently disrupted by the film, particularly by Clara’s own physical existence. Her intense connection with nature means she’s frequently covered in dirt, water and beetles, actively undercutting the perception of pristine, innocent femininity that Fresia holds so dear. In the same vein, however, her mother refuses to allow Clara to undergo surgery that would allow her to assimilate to the dominant beauty standard.
Araya, whose background lies in dance and physical theater, imbues Clara’s every movement with a careful corporeality that is thoroughly convincing. Wearing taxing prosthetics and masterfully molding her body to Clara’s, Araya’s performance is a marvel of non-verbal character development. While Clara’s blunt words often cut through the social façade of polite interactions, her movements beautifully and adeptly communicate her broader struggle for autonomy. She might say “no” outright if she’s displeased or uncomfortable, but her bowed head and hunched frame suggest a meekness that threatens to be overridden. Rincón’s performance is also a stand-out, granting Santiago a softness and poise that might otherwise be difficult to inject into a character who’s technically a statutory rapist. Despite his underage paramour and involvement in a totally bizarre love triangle with her aunt, he’s depicted with a tenderness that rejects outright condemnation. In a refreshing turn, Santiago is neither Satan nor savior.
Sure, the film might recall Carrie on paper—it focuses on an oppressive religious upbringing, a stunted sexual awakening and the presence of psychic powers—but the film is better off for never overtly teasing a horror slant. Clara Sola remains rooted in a magical realism that gracefully grapples with the patriarchal limits imposed on women’s sexual pleasure, particularly when fellow women enforce them. As opposed to a fiery climax that leaves its title character obliterated by these limits, Clara herself obliterates them through the cleansing flames of fire in a final scene that’s both melancholic and hopeful. While the oft-sexist nature of Christian doctrine is largely the focus of the film’s frustration, it doesn’t disregard the value of forging a genuine spiritual connection—one that worships the soil under our feet, the rivers that run through the forests, the animals that roam through our shared landscape. The verdant (and incidentally Edenic) image of Costa Rica portrayed in Clara Sola offers a tangible liberation from man-made modes of repression. In the unceasing cacophony of nature, no one can hear you moan.
Director: Nathalie Álvarez Mesén
Writers: Nathalie Álvarez Mesén, Maria Camila Arias
Stars: Wendy Chinchilla Araya, Daniel Castañeda Rincón, Ana Julia Porras Espinoza, Flor María Vargas Chavez
Release Date: July 1, 2022 (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine, Paste Magazine and Blood Knife Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan