The powerful need for expression and agency are at the heart of Nathalie Alvarez Mesen’s debut feature Clara Sola. The film centers on a 40-year-old Costa Rican woman named Clara (a mesmerizing Wendy Chinchilla Araya), whose deep connection to nature and animals seems to include the mystical ability to heal — but whose body and soul are constantly repressed, particularly by her devout mother, Fresia (Flor María Vargas Chavez). When Clara dares to test those constraints, the consequences are volatile.
Clara lives with her mother and her almost 15-year-old niece, Maria (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza) in rural Costa Rica, where lush flora and fauna are part of the fabric of everyday life. Clara has a special bond with a white mare named Yuca and often feels compelled to lie on the earth, getting as close as she can to the natural world. She is curious, passionate, and observant, but those around her view her as deficient — a child in a woman’s body who must be protected, restrained, and watched over. Her mother has no qualms about profiting from Clara’s healing energy, but she punishes her daughter for the slightest transgressions, shaming her for any sign of sexuality or independence.
As Maria’s quinceanera approaches and the family prepares for the festivities, Clara develops an interest in Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón), a young man whom Maria has been seeing on the sly. He’s kind to Clara, and her fixation grows — but is it him she wants, or simply the opportunity to act on the sensual feelings that she’s finding it increasingly difficult to tamp down? Either way, suppressing her instincts and desires is no longer a tenable option: She has awoken to the possibilities of the world around her, and there’s no going back.
Dancer Araya is arresting in her first starring movie role, instilling Clara with an earthy physicality that pairs perfectly with the film’s magical realism. The story’s more fantastical elements never overwhelm the relatable humanity of Clara’s condition — or her compelling journey to finding out who she really is. As she comes into her own, so do the story and Mesen’s clear talents as a filmmaker. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Marilyn Ferdinand People who are fans of Stephen King’s novel Carrie or the film versions of it may recognize something familiar in director/coscreenwriter Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s debut feature Clara Sola. Clara is a repressed woman whose religious mother has turned her into an object of worship for the devout people in her isolated Costa Rican village. The pain she suffers from a spinal curvature could be easily corrected by surgery, but her mother refuses her the operation, perhaps believing that a mark of the divine is physical pain. She also refuses to allow Clara to express her sexuality, keeping her a wallflower and thwarting her frequent masturbation with hot pepper juice and fire. When she decides to sell Clara’s horse to pay for her granddaughter’s quinceañera, that is the last straw. Clara’s rebellion becomes destructive in a setting similar to Carrie’s. Wendy Chinchilla Araya gives a phenomenal performance as Clara, playing her seemingly as mentally slow, but suggesting that her stunting has been manufactured by her assigned role. She is not unloved—for example, her niece is sympathetic and a genuine companion to her—but her boundaries are as defined as the rope paddock that keeps her horse from straying. This intense film is both visually rich and an intense experience with magical, metaphorical overtones.
Leslie Combemale It seems that writer/director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén and her co-screenwriter Maria Camila Arias aim to articulate the challenge of women living in a society that prioritizes god above man, man above woman, and mankind above nature, all through Clara. They were lucky to find Wendy Chinchillla Araya to collaborate in that articulation. It is a lot of responsibility to put on someone for their first acting role, yet she brings an elemental ferocity and tenderness to the character. Chinchillla Araya shows us Clara’s internal dance, in her fearful interactions with humans and her fearless interactions with animals. Her connection to the elements is always in evidence. She is not just of nature, but is nature. In that way, both the character and the film as a whole are a powerful expression of the divine feminine. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin Clara Sola is a magical first feature from writer/director Nathalie Alvarez Mesen. Set in a remote village in the Costa Rican wilderness, the story centers on a women whose mystical connection with nature gives her healing powers which she applies to humans and other creatures and, ultimately to herself. The film’s ensemble is comprised for the most part of local villagers, supporting Wendy Chincilla Araya’s extraordinary debut performance as Clara. Cinematographer Sophie Winqvist’s lensing is exquisitely sensitive, as is the editing by Marie-Helene Dozo and Natalia Solorzano. Clara Sola marks the arrivial of a brilliant feminist perspective in filmmaking. Watch Nathalie Alvarez Mesen interview.
Loren King The unique and wholly original Clara Sola is a gorgeous, finely etched character study about the title character, a mature woman with physical and mental limitations who rebels against repression by her mother and her environment, a lush and mysterious Costa Rican forest. The magnificent Wendy Chinchilla Araya, making her movie debut, plays the childlike Clara who lives with her niece María (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza) and her religious mother Fresia (Flor María Vargas Chaves). Read full review.
Pam Grady: First-time feature director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén skillfully blends touches of magical realism with almost documentary-like observations of Clara, her family, Santiago, and lush woods surrounding Clara’s dilapidated home. The effect is to completely immerse us in Clara’s world, one in which Santiago’s sensual physicality looms large, a horse is one’s soul mate, earthquakes are not necessarily wholly scientific seismic events, and the Virgin’s appearance is both a blessing and a curse. Read full review.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Clara Sola is Costa Rican director Nathalie Álvarez Mesen’sbold debut film featuring an unforgettable performance by Wendy Chincilla Araya as the titular character who is believed to have the power of healing. Clara, who’s 40 years old and living with intellectual and physical disabilities (which her elderly mother refuses to treat), is a mystical almost-child-like virgin whose abilities to heal extend to both humans and creatures. The film is remarkably compelling. Clara’s sexual awakening is simultaneously mesmerizing and disturbing, particularly when she begins to grow jealous of her attentive and pretty teen niece Maria’s flirtation with a local ranch hand whom Clara finds attractive. Mesen and Maria Camila Arias’ script is beautifully accompanied by Sophie Winqvist’s evocative cinematography. The actors, many of whom are locals to the production, all do an excellent job of supporting Chinchilla Araya’s powerful portrayal.
Liz Whittemore Clara is an isolated and sexually repressed 40-year-old woman who has a curious and mysterious bond with nature and the divine. When she’s pushed to her limits, escape is the only remedy. In a creative screenplay from director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén and co-writer Maria Camila Arias, where dialogue is both literal and figurative, Clara Sola is a beautiful new addition to the roster of feminist features. Read full review.
Cate Marquis In Clara Sola, a drama set in rural Costa Rico and filled with moments of magical realism and human longing, Wendy Chincilla Araya gives a moving performance as Clara, a middle-aged woman who may be mentally disabled in some way and lives a very restrictive life with her family. Clara is regarded as a healer by the people in her religious village, and her family collects money at faith-themed healing ceremonies, raising the question whether her tightly-controlled life may be more for the family’s benefit than hers. When Clara suddenly experiences a sexual awakening, it sparks a longing for more freedom and more of a life than her circumstances have allowed. The film is suffused with beautiful, magical images by cinematographer Sophie Winqvist, and first-time director Nathalie Alvarez Mesen impresses with this intense, moving drama.
Title: Clara Sola
Director: Nathalie Álvarez Mesén
Release Date: June 24, 2022
Running Time: 106 minutes
Screenwriters: Nathalie Álvarez Mesén and co-screenwriter Maria Camila Arias
Distribution Company: Oscilloscope Pictures
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin