REVIEW: Clara Sola [2022]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 106 minutes
    Release Date: July 1st, 2022 (Costa Rica)
    Studio: Oscilloscope Laboratories
    Director(s): Nathalie Álvarez Mesén
    Writer(s): Maria Camila Arias & Nathalie Álvarez Mesén

Stay inside the purple zone.

While it’s not explicitly stated, the assumption is that the majority of Clara’s (Wendy Chinchilla Araya) family’s finances comes from donations made in her name. Some arrives courtesy of horse tours through their Costa Rican landscape as run by a local acquaintance (Daniel Castañeda Rincón‘s Santiago) with their white mare Yuca, but that can’t guarantee a consistent revenue stream. So, Clara’s aging mother Fresia (Flor María Vargas Chavez) forces her into a corset to stand and recite blessings to a room of strangers desperate for healing. It’s their belief that her forty-year-old recluse has been touched by the Virgin Mary to help those suffering and in pain. This has been her life’s purpose for years. Contending with her own physical and emotional ailments, liberation has proven itself impossible.

As director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén and co-writer Maria Camila Arias‘ film Clara Sola pushes forward, however, we realize the time for change has arrived. The shift is fueled by her niece Maria’s (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza) impending Quinceañera, the young girl (raised by her grandmother while also serving as a sort of caretaker/confidant for Clara) hitting an age of sexual awakening. Suddenly a house that was steeped in religious piety has become opened to new experiences that Fresia had kept at bay when it came to Clara. They watch lustful telenovelas together. Maria flirts with Santiago. And Clara begins to feel a compulsion to test the boundaries of her own pleasure centers. She wants to dress pretty like Maria. She wants to feel the warmth of a kiss.

More than carnal desires, Clara also unearths the hypocrisy of her existence. For so long she has lived under the constraints of strict rules as far as how she must look, where she’s allowed to go (Fresia has set-up borders with purple flags to designate where Clara must stop if unattended), and what she’s allowed to feel. Until now, none of it seemed confining. Watching Maria break free of those restrictions supplies her the possibility that she can too. So, she rejects the corset. She rejects having to wear the same party dress year after year. She rejects having to follow her mother’s rules. Is she able to truly fight back, though? Not really. Fresia calls the shots to the point of refusing surgery to fix Clara’s spine.

This is how God made her and so this is how she must remain. Where an American version of this story would soon reveal that it’s all a con, Mesén knows that direction would ultimately undercut what it is she and Arias are saying. These aren’t charlatans. Fresia and the community believe Clara is channeling Mary and doing God’s work. It’s therefore Fresia’s job to keep her daughter in line because doing so protects much more than just a single life. That means punishment. Putting chili pepper juice on Clara’s hands to stop her from masturbating. Holding her hand above a candle flame to atone for sinful deeds. And all the while Maria is allowed to run free. To kiss Santiago (and perhaps more) while Clara clandestinely watches.

What is the price of God’s miracles? The erasure of Clara’s autonomy. That’s not to say Fresia doesn’t love her daughter or that Clara would be able to handle the sort of independence she is starting to crave. But doesn’t she deserve that choice? Doesn’t she deserve to be asked what it is she wants? To be told her needs are evil is abuse and that sort of repression always demands an explosive reckoning when its victim finally becomes cognizant to their imprisonment. Cue the rebellion. Stealing Maria’s things to wear. Rolling in the mud before a prayer circle. Sabotaging the sale of Yuca, her best friend. Allowing Santiago’s genuine kindness and defiance to give her the wrong idea. Clara crosses a threshold for which there’s no return.

Clara Sola is the coming-of-age tale of a middle-aged woman. And it uses the magical realism inherent to being a vessel for God as a metaphor for what her awakening entails. How powerful is Clara after all? It’s one thing to be a pillar of hope to ignite a communal placebo effect. It’s another to channel her frustrations into the earth and cause a tremor. Maybe it’s coincidence. Maybe it’s not. A lot of unexplainable occurrences arise whether Clara’s uncanny ability to know when it’s going to rain or how to get Yuca to do what she wants despite refusing everyone else’s requests. There’s even the possibility of bringing her pet beetle Ofir back to life. Although it might all just be the delusions of a troubled mind.

Clara wants to live as a princess like Maria’s fantasies and yet she’s made to languish like Rapunzel instead, locked away from the outside world by mind games and guilt. She wants to spread her wings and fly. To take Yuca into the woods to live free and encumbered by the restraints of a society and religion that demand sacrifice without compensation. And the more those in a position to help steward her towards a future that allows for her input squeeze the reins tighter, the more volatile Clara’s reactionary escape will prove. It’s inevitable when you’re dealing with gray issues on a black or white scale. If the thing they demand is good has caused her so much grief, why wouldn’t she vehemently choose the alternative instead?

Mesén delivers a subtle yet powerful drama matching Araya’s memorably innocent yet determined performance. It’s about little moments like a woman putting lipstick on Clara. She wants it despite Maria’s (and later Frescia’s) attempts to stop their virginal miracle worker from appearing less “pure.” Only Santiago sees her as a human being with desire, handing her a tissue to shape and blot the make-up rather than wipe it off. It’s why she becomes sweet on him and why her inability to traverse the landscape of her feelings thanks to decades of repression won’t be able to shake off rejection unscathed. That’s what freedom entails, though. Sometimes you get burned, but it’s better than never trying. The tragedy is that Heaven might be her only chance to secure it.

courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

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