by Hope Madden
It’s rare for a film to tackle the difference between spirituality and religion with as much beauty and empathy as Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s Costa Rican treasure, Clara Sola.
Clara (a remarkable Wendy Chinchilla Araya) is a middle-aged woman living with her mother and niece in a remote area of the country. Her closest friend is a white horse, Yuca, that the family lets to a neighbor each morning to use with tourists. When the neighbor hires a summer replacement named Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón), something in Clara awakens.
Making her feature debut, Álvarez Mesén is already a master of showing without telling. Her film unveils Clara’s story moment by moment, but never feels deliberate. Using mainly nonactors gives Clara Sola a lived-in, authentic feel, while Sophie Windqvist’s camera and Ruben De Gheselle’s score immerse Clara and her family in something both natural and enchanting.
Chinchilla Araya, a dancer by trade, delivers an unaffected, unselfconscious performance you can’t look away from. Simultaneously delicate and fierce, it’s a turn perfectly suited to the magical realism the filmmaker develops.
Castañeda Rincón’s tenderness is forever surprising, and the two develop an easy but heartbreaking chemistry. Álvarez Mesén, who writes along with Maria Camila Arias, isn’t afraid to complicate characters—the kind of complexity rarely given to those in such a rural setting.
No one in Clara’s world is one-dimensional, nor is the filmmaker’s take on family. The love inside Clara’s house may be what feels most believable and sincere—and damaging. But what emerges is a clear look at the way spirituality is reined in and controlled by religion. Even clearer are the marks left by the women who enforce patriarchal order.
Clara Sola is an utterly gorgeous film unlike any other. It moves at its own pace, unnerves as it goes, and leaves you shaken but hopeful.