Clara Sola review – miraculous drama of burgeoning sexuality and divine grace | Movies

A luminous lead performance – captured almost entirely in closeup – is at the heart of this mysterious drama of sexuality and divine grace. It’s an outstanding first feature from 34-year-old Costa Rican film-maker Nathalie Álvarez Mesén, and her lead performer Wendy Chinchilla Araya is making her own deeply impressive movie debut, having worked before this in dance and mime.

Araya plays Clara, a woman of early middle age who lives in a Costa Rican village with her elderly mother Fresia (Flor María Vargas Chavez) and teen niece Maria (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza). Clara has learning difficulties and a spine malformation, but Fresia will not hear of Clara having this corrected surgically despite the hospital assuring her there is no cost involved. This is because Clara, in all her innocent strangeness, has developed a local reputation as a healer – curing local people’s maladies by channelling the Blessed Virgin’s presence – and Fresia believes that any change to her daughter’s appearance would be against God’s wishes, and also, perhaps, believes that making her look “normal” would reduce her daughter’s local prestige. Meanwhile, poor Clara’s only friend is their horse Yuca, and she is allowed out in the fields to spend time with this animal on condition that she stays within an area marked out by a number of purple tied cloths.

But Clara’s life is to change when handsome local boy Santi (Daniel Castañeda Rincón) comes, wanting to rent their horse for tourist trips. Young Maria excitedly falls for him but so, poignantly, does Clara and her late-flowering sexuality manifests itself by masturbating in front of romantic telenovelas on TV, to her mother’s horror. Clara’s burgeoning sensuality and sense of self seems also to coincide with a new spiritual intensity, and a sensitivity to the local quake tremors. Maria’s imminent 15th birthday party or quinceañera, to which poor lumpen Clara is invited, shapes up to be a Carrie-prom-night catastrophe.

Clara Sola is superbly filmed and composed with a very humid sense of atmosphere, and Araya’s performance is a miracle of sympathy and candour.

Clara Sola is released on 18 November in cinemas and on digital platforms.

Shirley McQuay

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