Movie Review: Gifted and “touched” in Costa Rica — “Clara Sola”

Clara takes in the world with all her senses, peering into the minutia of life, feeling the sun and the breeze, smelling the ground and listening to the wind and everything it brushes past.

She’s may be mentally still a child in her 30s, but she is the only one who can comfort the family mare when she’s needed for “the tourists” at a nearby waterfall and Yuca is reluctant to go.

When anybody in her village is sick, they come to Clara and her mother, Doña Frescia. Clara has “cured cancer, healed knees and hearts,” her mother tells those who visit to see the simple — perhaps “on the spectrum” — daughter “God has gifted” her, and everyone else, with.

But Clara was born with a crooked spine. The local doctor recommends an operation. No no, her mother insists.

“I don’t want her operated on,” she declares, in Spanish with English subtitles. “God gave her to me like this. She stays like this.

Clara’s young niece, Maria, who helps care for her, can protest all she likes. Doña Frescia won’t listen. Clara’s pain and her “gift” will remain. This is the totality of Clara’s life, socially and romantically alone, living largely in her head, “Clara Sola.”

Costa-Rican/Swedish director and co-writer Nathalie Álvarez Mesén immerses us in this world, and Wendy Chinchilla Araya, as Clara, is our fascinating tour guide, an introverted innocent living an isolated life, seemingly under the thumb of a tyrannical religious fanatic mother, played by Flor María Vargas Chavez.

But we’ve seen the way Clara drinks in the handsome young neighbor, Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón). Her 15 year-old niece Maria (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza) may have to dress her, wash her hair and even shower with Clara to bathe her. That doesn’t mean her “special” aunt hasn’t developed urges. Clara’s mother turns the TV off any time a telenovela turns too steamy. Clara can’t help touching herself.

Clara is starting to go through some things. And since Maria has her eye on “Santi” too, so is everyone else.

Mesén’s film, a Swedish TV co-production, plays down the “healer” part of Clara’s life and story, focusing instead on her innocence and her eccentricities. She “counts houses” when she walks or travels, feels the Earth move and assumes it’s her doing (“Earthquakes,” Maria assures her.).

Whatever this “feeling” is that she’s tumbling into, she isn’t sophisticated or mature enough to process, not in any healthy, socially acceptable way.

In Araya’s largely-internalized performance, we sense Clara’s confusion, anguish and frustration at a world and a family circle that won’t let her experience what she craves and that gives her little agency in her own life. It’s just “get dressed” (with Maria doing the dressing) for this party or that Virgin Mary ceremony, talk the horse into the trailer and accept every decision Doña Frescia hands down, including her constant dipping the daughter’s fingers in chilis to keep her from this “disgusting” new habit she’s embraced and can’t control — touching herself.

The script, by Maria Camila Arias and Mesén, floats a lot of intriguing ideas and possible subtexts and story threads that aren’t developed. Their primary focus is on Clara’s sexual awakening, her family’s reaction to it and Santiago’s dilemma. Can he be kind, responsible and gentlemanly to her without things turning carnal? Will she allow it?

And how might someone in her circumstances with her “gifts” respond to a primal desire that’s dismissed, opposed or rejected?

It makes for an engrossing character study, a Latin film with lots of local color, a hint of magical realism and an air of hopelessness tinged with menace — a unique cinematic experience.

Rating: unrated, sex, nudity, profanity, some violence

Cast: Wendy Chinchilla Araya, Ana Julia Porras Espinoza, Daniel Castañeda Rincón and Flor María Vargas Chavez

Credits: Directed by Nathalie Álvarez Mesén, scripted by Maria Camila Arias and Nathalie Álvarez Mesén. An Oscilloscope Labs release.

Running time: 1:

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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