Without Wendy Chinchilla Araya, the dancer and first-time film actress playing the title role, “Clara Sola” would be a finely wrought tale of a later-life coming-of-age, in which mysticism, marginalization and sudden sexual jealousy collide on the fringes of a teeming Costa Rican forest. With her, and her feral movements and her keen but wary eyes, director Nathalie Álvarez Mesen’s feature debut is elevated into something much more strange and sorrowful, a kind of lament for the casual cruelties that “regular” people visit on those who don’t fit — and by extension on all the creatures of this world that we cannot understand, but still manage to exploit.
Clara is an extraordinarily believable creation: an intellectually challenged middle-aged woman whose otherworldly demeanor and connection to nature — especially to the family’s fairytale-like white horse, Yuca — have, along with a reported personal encounter with the Virgin years before, given her the reputation of a mystic within this small village. The sick come to have her hands laid on them, the despairing come to pray with her — rituals that are mediated by her pious mother Fresia (Flor María Vargas Chaves), who is at once Clara’s protector, champion and oppressor.
When she is told that there is a simple, free surgery that could repair the twisted spine that gives her daughter so much pain, Fresia rejects it. Over the objections of Clara’s pretty, good-natured teenage niece María (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza), who genuinely loves and cares for her aunt, Fresia states with finality, “God gave her to me like this. She stays like this.”
As with all the characters so crisply drawn by Mesen and Maria Camila Arias’ screenplay, and so beautifully played by the whole cast, it’s possible to interpret Fresia’s motivations as both sincere and self-interested. There’s no sense she doesn’t believe in Clara’s supernatural abilities, and you can see how a caring mother would have done all she could to promote the idea of her developmentally disabled child as special rather than lesser. But there’s also a canny awareness that to make Clara more like everyone else would be to interfere with her marketability — for want of a better word — as a mystic.
To Fresia, and to the locals steeped in a particularly superstitious Christian Orthodoxy, Clara’s suffering is an integral part of her spirituality. It’s also why Fresia is so intent on arresting Clara’s sexual development, which has started to stir of late when she watches romantic telenovelas.
But if Fresia can rub chilis on Clara’s fingers to stop her masturbating, she cannot halt the confusion of feelings that are provoked by the arrival on the farm of kind-eyed, handsome young worker Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón). While María, with her quinceañera imminent, pursues a regular sort of relationship with the unusually respectful and sweet Santiago, he and Clara also bond, over the animals he tends to, that she loves and understands and speaks to, and occasionally, it seems, brings back to life.
Sophie Winqvist Loggins’ rich, dark-tinged photography is so sensitive to this different frequency of Clara’s that it normalizes it, making the minute observation of a beetle or a plunge into murky river waters feel like normal interactions with the world; it’s the garish, noisy jangle of Maria’s birthday celebrations that are alien and disruptive. To put us so entirely into the confidence of a non-neurotypical character like Clara is a perilous endeavor, but Mesen achieves it beautifully, abetted always by Araya’s strikingly sympathetic but wholly un-self-pitying performance.
It’s a turn that remains shimmeringly singular even when the structure of the film becomes more corseted and constricting, as “Clara Sola” morphs into an oddly perfect echo of Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” in the way the plot moves toward conflagration, in the parallel drawn between female sexual awakening and putative, possibly destructive supernatural power, and in a climax that occurs at a gaudy rite-of-passage celebration.
But there’s a different, sadder and somehow truer moral here, one that is not so rooted in humiliation and retribution, but in the achingly sad acceptance that for some of us, loneliness is an unavoidable birthright. Mesen’s delicate yet earthy, thoughtful yet sensual movie never tips its hand as to whether Clara’s abilities are real or imaginary — indeed it makes the line between fact and fantasy seem as nonsensical as it might to a horse — and it pays off in one of those obscurely uplifting endings. Perhaps a peri-mortem fantasy, perhaps a literal plan of escape, whether you read it as a tragedy or a triumph, for Clara, it’s a liberation.