Written by Anna Harrison
Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s feature debut, Clara Sola, could very well be called The 40-Year-Old Virgin, though other than both films revolving around a 40(ish)-year-old virgin (this one played by Wendy Chinchilla Araya), the two share precious little in common. The titular Clara lives in a remote area of Costa Rica with her mother, Fresia (Flor María Vargas Chaves), and her niece, María (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza), though the most important figure in her life might be the horse named Yuca, or perhaps the statues of the Virgin Mary that populate the house and loom so large in Clara’s mind. Clara serves as a spiritual healer for the community, though seems to have no agency in this; it’s unclear if she suffers from a mental disability or has simply been raised in a very sheltered, very religious environment (or both), but either way, her life is sheltered and insular, leaving Clara unsure how to deal with most social situations.
All that changes upon the arrival of Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón), a new employee at the nearby tour company. He strikes up a romance with María as she prepares for her quinceañera, and Clara, whose attempts at sexual self-discovery have been thwarted by her mother and the application of chili paste on her hands, watches from afar, her niece’s own coming-of-age sparking Clara’s decades-overdue sexual awakening.
There is a delicacy with which Álvarez Mesén handles Clara’s expanding knowledge; her script, written along with Maria Camila Arias, is threadbare, preferring instead to let the camera, the staging, and Chinchilla Araya’s magnetic performance do the talking. There are lush forests, winding rivers, dark nights lit only by fireflies. Clara feels a tactile connection to the living things around her: she lays in the mud, wades in the river, catches bugs and keeps them on her bedside table. While Clara’s mother presents her as a conduit for the Virgin Mary, she’s more akin to Mother Earth.
But even while the film is—in some cases, quite literally—grounded, Álvarez Mesén injects hints of magical realism here and there, so even as she focuses on the dirt and trees around Clara, the proceedings are tinged with a sense of unearthliness. Though it’s never much in question whether Clara is in a vessel for the Holy Virgin, her mystical healing skills are much more nebulous. Can she cause earthquakes through her anger? Bring animals back to life with her breath?
We don’t get any definitive answers, only more questions. Clara Sola is not a film for the impatient; even with a runtime under two hours, it can be slow going. The action pieces in the film involve small events like the spraying of a hose or tipping of a candle, and large swathes go without dialogue, but for those who are able to sit down and let the images and performances wash over them, it can be richly rewarding.
Clara Sola Trailer