‘Clara Sola’ review: A woman awakens to the oppression around her

There is perhaps no better time than now to tell a story about an oppressed woman fighting against limitations in her culturally conservative world, which Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s “Clara Sola” offers with a forest of divine energy, artistry and mystery. Taking center stage, Wendy Chinchilla Araya’s Wendy Chinchilla Araya, who as a childish mystic awakened to how the boundaries around her limit possibilities, is a spiky, original portrait of an aspiring, rebellious femininity.

In the misty mountains of Costa Rica, 40-year-old Clara (Araya) lives with her deeply devout mother Dona Fresia (Flor María Vargas Chaves) and cheerful teenage niece Maria (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza), fulfilling a dual role as a religious healer for Villagers at candlelight ceremonies at home and horse whisperers for Yuca, the local tourism organization’s coveted white horse. These responsibilities might sound like they give Clara a certain stature, but the reality is that she’s more of a trained, chained pet than a self-actualized adult. She is noticeable, almost loud, quiet, like someone being watched, and her vigilance borders on ferocity. She’s also physically bowed down by an unnamed illness, the mother of which refuses to have surgery corrected because it’s “like God gave me.”

Mesén refuses to satisfy our natural curiosity about Clara’s condition with an explanation, preferring to see a stark contrast between the restorative quality of the character’s Earth Mother gifts, who communicate with creatures and nature, and the way these miracles work viewed in a deeply conventional way, would draw patriarchal society as channeled through a sanctified virgin. We realize that Clara would rather tune in to the hum of nature (lying in the ground, listening to insects, trees, or tremors coming up) than dealing with people who probably don’t see her as a thinking, feeling person anyway.

Clara’s wrinkled purity is something her mother wants to protect to an unsettling degree. Purple ribbons around her forest-shrouded property dictate how far Clara can roam, and for those moments when steaming telenovelas stir brazen exploration across her clothes, bowls of spices are brought out for a preventive punishment called ‘Chili Fingers’.

But with preparations for the niece’s upcoming quinceañera and regular visits from the strapping, sweet-faced horse trainer Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón), who shows Clara affection for her eccentricities with a lopsided smile, there’s a newly heightened sexual tension in the air that our protagonist responds with a rising rebellion that is both stunning and uncomfortable, not unlike a dancer testing a new body awareness without the constraints of choreography or accepted grace.

A movie like Clara Sola, which Mesén co-wrote with Maria Camila Arias, only works if you’ve nailed the lead and brought her wit to life. On both fronts, Mesén – a Costa Rican-Swedish filmmaker who studied pantomime – displays impressive cinematic skills in weaving performance (from a new cast to acting), cinematic textures and injecting magical realism.

Dance-trained Araya is a formidable presence spiritually and physically – her charged gaze and demure to energetic movements show the power of Clara’s connection to her surroundings and how they ignite her destructive independence. You’d swear that whatever she lays her hands and eyes on is something you can feel too, regardless of its potential beauty, suffering, or danger. It’s also a testament to the tactile, emotional breadth of Sophie Winqvist Loggins’ naturalistically exquisite (but never flashy) cinematography, subtly expanding from an early shallow depth of field to a thicker, more fluid, and more expansive intensity in later scenes—like a window patiently larger did.

Though subdued and lyrical in its imagery and tone, “Clara Sola” shouldn’t be mistaken for a woo-woo heart-warmer — at heart, it’s a tale of a woman’s fearlessness in the face of oppression, grasping the disorder of the outbreak and contemplating the emotional, even physical, wreckage of their elemental empowerment as a necessary sacrifice. “Carrie” horrified told it as a case study; in Mesén’s hands it is feminine defiance as a nature film.

‘Clara Sola’

In Spanish with English subtitles

Not rated

Duration: 1 hour 48 minutes

To play: Opens July 8, Landmark Westwood

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-07-07/clara-sola-review ‘Clara Sola’ review: A woman awakens to the oppression around her

Sarah Ridley

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