Review: A woman rebels against cultural oppression in Costa Rican drama ‘Clara Sola’

A woman in white with her head bowed is surrounded by people with raised hands during a ritual.
Wendy Chinchilla Araya in the movie “Clara Sola.”
(Oscilloscope Laboratories)

There might be no better time than now to mainline a story about a repressed woman pushing at restrictions in her culturally conservative world, which Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s “Clara Sola” offers up with a forestful of divine energy, artistry, and mystery. Centered on a can’t-look-away turn by Wendy Chinchilla Araya as a childlike mystic awakened to how the limits around her hem the possibilities within, this mesmerizing first feature is a spikily original portrait of late-breaking, insurgent womanhood.

In the misty mountains of Costa Rica, 40-year-old Clara (Araya) lives with her deeply pious mother, Dona Fresia (Flor María Vargas Chaves), and cheerful adolescent niece Maria (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza), doing double duty as a religious healer for villagers in candlelit ceremonies at home and an equine whisperer for the local tourism outfit’s prized white horse, Yuca. Those responsibilities may sound like they give Clara a certain stature, but the reality is that she is more a trained, chained house pet than self-actualized adult. She’s noticeably, almost loudly, quiet, in the manner of someone being monitored, and her watchfulness borders on feral. She’s also physically hunched from an unnamed ailment her mother refuses to get corrected with surgery because it’s “how God gave her to me.”

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Mesén refuses to indulge our natural curiosity about Clara’s condition with an explanation, because she’d rather draw a stark contrast between the restoring quality of the character’s earth-mother gifts communing with creatures and nature, and how those miracles are viewed in a deeply conventional, patriarchal society as being channeled through a sanctified virgin. It’s clear to us that Clara is happier tuning herself to nature’s hum (lying in the earth listening to insects, trees or for nascent tremors) than dealing with people who likely don’t see her as a thinking, feeling person anyway.


Clara’s rumpled purity is something her mother is intent on protecting, to a disturbing degree. Purple ribbons around their woods-shrouded property dictate how far Clara can wander, and for those moments when watching steamy telenovelas stir some shameless over-her-clothes exploring, bowls of spices are brought out for a preventative punishment called “chili fingers.”

But with preparations in full swing for the niece’s upcoming quinceañera and regular visits from strapping, sweet-faced horse trainer Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón), who shows Clara some crooked-smile affection for her eccentricities, a newly heightened sexual tension is in the air that our protagonist answers with a gathering rebelliousness that’s both breathtaking and uneasy, not unlike a dancer testing a new bodily awareness without the constraints of choreography or accepted grace.

A movie like “Clara Sola,” which Mesén wrote with Maria Camila Arias, works only if you’ve nailed the lead role and brought to life the keenness of her perceptions. On both fronts, Mesén — a Costa Rican/Swedish filmmaker who’s studied mime — shows formidable filmmaking skill in the braiding of performance (from a cast new to acting), cinema texture and sprinklings of magical realism.

The dance-trained Araya is a commanding presence spiritually and physically — her charged gaze and brittle-to-forceful movements registering the power of Clara’s connection to her surroundings, and how they’re sparking her disruptive independence. You’d swear that whatever she lays her hands and eyes on is something you can sense too, whatever its potential beauty or sorrow or danger. Which is also a testament to the tactile, emotional breadth of Sophie Winqvist Loggins’ naturalistically exquisite (but never showy) cinematography, subtly widening from shallow depth of field early on to a thicker, more fluid and expansive intensity in later scenes — like a window patiently being made bigger.

Though hushed and lyrical in its images and sounds, “Clara Sola” shouldn’t be mistaken for some woo-woo heart-stirrer, however — in its guts, it’s a story of a woman’s fearlessness in the face of oppression that grasps the messiness of breaking out, and regards the emotional, even physical, wreckage of her elemental empowerment as a necessary casualty. “Carrie” told it as a case study in horror; in Mesén’s hands, it’s female defiance as a nature film.

'Clara Sola'

In Spanish with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Playing: Opens July 8, Landmark Westwood