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‘Clara Sola’ Review: A Rural Costa Rican Village Becomes the Setting for Riveting, Earthy Riff on ‘Carrie’

Dancer Wendy Chinchilla Araya plays an intellectually stunted faith healer in search of her own salvation in Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s debut.

“Clara Sola”

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In some ways, Clara (Wendy Chinchilla Araya) is the most liberated woman in the verdant, remote, and deceptively matriarchal Costa Rican village where she works for God. A semi-feral 40-year-old who — legend has it — was once visited by the Virgin Mary, Clara has been molded into a faith healer by her ultra-religious mother (Flor María Vargas Chaves as Fresia), who’s successfully rebranded her daughter’s curved spine and childlike intellect as symptoms of divinity.

Aside from miracles on demand, little is expected of her. Clara is free to spend her days wandering through the forest, brushing her beloved white horse Yuca, and making adorable homes for the beetles she finds in the wild. She’s activated whenever someone with a few dollars to spare needs a leg healed or a cancer cured, but for the most part Clara is left to do as she pleases.

That is, as long as it doesn’t displease her mother. Fresia keeps her only surviving daughter on a tight leash, especially now that Clara’s sister — the jewel of her family — has ascended to heaven, leaving behind a bright-eyed daughter of her own (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza plays the teenage Mariá). Clara is treated like a young girl, even though she’s closer to menopause than puberty. Mariá bathes her and brushes her thick mane of black hair; Fresia chastises her for sticking her head out of the car window (“you’ll get sick”) and makes Clara spit out the stolen cloves she hides on her tongue. She rubs chili oil on her daughter’s fingers when the telenovelas they watch at night inspire Clara to rub her “touch-me-not.”

Even more worryingly, Fresia denies Clara the free surgery that would straighten her spine. “God gave her to me like this,” she explains. That may be true, but it won’t be so easy for Fresia to keep her that way over the course of Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s nuanced and exquisitely febrile “Clara Sola,” a “Carrie”-accented portrait of feminine power that finds its holy fool of a heroine striving for her own kind of religious freedom.

The tension at the heart of this major debut is rooted in Araya’s Butoh-like performance (the professional dancer’s first screen role), which more than delivers on the potential of casting someone with such exquisite control of her body in the part of a disabled woman who has such precious little control over her life.

From the florid opening frames of Clara reaching towards Yuca — Araya’s hands grasping at the air as if trying to pull the horse closer at the same time as they hope to escape from her wrists — “Clara Sola” is fleshed with the feeling that love and repression are braided together. It’s bound by the sense that we smother the things most precious to us in order to keep them from getting away. A sinewy fable about a woman who’s made to feel as if she’s at once both not enough and also everything, Mesén’s fever dream of a film may be steeped in Catholic religiosity, but it ultimately places what’s left of its faith in the act of letting go.

That’s easier said than done for the women of Vara Blanca, Clara very much included. Together, they struggle to let go of the patriarchal systems that have disadvantaged them since time immemorial (there’s an element of self-denial to how Fresia, Clara, and Mariá have embraced their respective roles as mothers, mystics, and minor-age temptations before this story begins and a man turns everything upside down).

Individually, they suffocate each other without malice. Fresia may be irredeemably flawed to some degree, but even the most oppressive decisions she imposes upon her daughter are scented with a desperate air of love — an air that sometimes curdles into the overprotectiveness of a shotgun-toting father. In its own childlike way, that same dynamic is reflected in Clara’s refusal to let Yuca be rented out to tourists, and in the little terrarium she builds out of stray grass and a kitchen strainer for a bug she names Ofir (likely the most endearing movie bug since the cockroach from “Wall-E”).

For her part, Mariá is an unwitting participant in the patriarchy; she spends the movie preparing for her climactic quinceañera and carousing around with her much older boyfriend Santiago (a gentle Daniel Castañeda Rincón), activities that are rendered by Mesén and Maria Camila Arias’ script with remarkable even-handedness. The quinceañera is presented with a leery eye towards its pageantry, and inevitably becomes a venue for quasi-supernatural violence in a way that cements this (bloodless) film’s connection to “Carrie,” but the party is painted more as an opportunity for empowerment than it is for pure horror.

Santiago, meanwhile, is made predatory by his age alone, yet he’s consistently the most tender and understanding character in the story, and the only one who recognizes that Clara has more to offer beyond the role she was born to play. “Clara Sola” doesn’t crucify the guy for having sex with a 15-year-old any more than it nails Fresia for denying her daughter surgery, but it uses the uncertainty their actions impose upon Clara’s life to explore how love can become its own cross to bear.

If Clara threatens to implode under the strain, it’s not for lack of strength. Araya’s performance is so riveting because her wracked physicality allows the character to appear both helpless and indomitable all at once, equal parts hunched and coiled, something fawn-like but feral. That same animistic volatility is suffused into the atmosphere of a film that calls frequent attention to Carla’s connection with nature, as Sophie Winqvist Loggins’ semi-delirious handheld cinematography and Ruben De Gheselle’s trembling violin score combine to suggest that Carla is being seduced back to the earth — that she’s gradually rejecting the mortal world that had always rejected her in return.

It isn’t easy for Clara to let go of the context that has caged her in, nor is it easy for Mesén to illustrate what that looks like; if her film ends with a familiar note of over-satisfied ambiguity, that’s only so disappointing because the rest of “Clara Sola” is carried by a defiant refusal to play by the rules that have been set for it.

Grade: B+

Oscilloscope Laboratories will release “Clara Sola” in theaters on Friday, July 1.

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