Cannes 2021 review: Clara Sola (Nathalie Álvarez Mesén)

Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s debut feature Clara Sola pushes Costa Rican cinema, not really a staple on the international film scene, to the forefront in quietly devastating fashion. Álvarez Mesén, who was a co-writer on last year’s Orizzonti Short Film winner Entre Tú y Milagros and has a history of participating in highly rated programs like Berlinale Talents and TIFF’s Filmmaker Lab, in her first feature explores the stifling effect of her country’s strong religiosity on the development of a woman on the outskirts of society.

Clara (Wendy Chinchilla Araya), a middle-aged, psychologically underdeveloped woman with a twisted spine, has been living under the dominating eye of her deeply religious mother for all her life. After a supposed encounter with the Virgin Mary in her past the people in her rural community believe Clara to have strong healing powers, and she is loved and revered as a result. Yet her mother keeps her on a short leash, causing Clara to retract into her own little world, where she keeps beetles as pets and gives secret names to people and animals alike. When the handsome Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón) steps into her world it triggers an explosion of hormones in the already sexually awakening Clara. Santiago starts a relationship with Clara’s niece María (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza), but is kind to Clara as well, a kindness she misinterprets as sexual attention. This coming to a head at María’s quinceañera, and unrelated bad news about her favorite horse Yuca, makes Clara decide to burn all her bridges, leading to a magical realist ending that symbolizes Clara breaking free from her bonds and choosing her own path in life.

Much of Clara Sola‘s second and third acts is centered around María’s quinceañera: picking out dresses, makeup, and whatnot, and finally the feast itself. Around what is a traditional celebration of a girl transitioning into womanhood, Álvarez Mesén smartly constructs the story of a woman actually undergoing that same transformation, except without anybody throwing her a big party. A middle-aged girl who still dreams of knights (Santiago) on white horses (Yuca), the horse’s fate being the straw that broke the camel’s back in Clara’s own moment of becoming a woman with a will of her own. Clara Sola is rife with this sort of symbolism, which adds a deeper layer to Clara’s intimate and small story.

A film as intimate as Clara Sola rises or falls by the grace of its central performance, and Chinchilla, a professional and award-winning dancer, is impressive in her feature film debut. By nature of the character her Clara is very much an internalized soul whose drama resides in her eyes. During one of her more intimate moments with Santiago, Clara whispers in his ear, “I’ve come so close to myself that I can disappear“, which is an oddly fitting description of Chinchilla’s strong performance anchoring the whole film. The rest of the cast complements her well, in particular Castañeda, who has great chemistry with Chinchilla in their scenes together.

In the end Clara Sola is probably too quiet to attract much attention, but that isn’t to say it wouldn’t be deserved, as this little gem is powerful in its tender portrayal of an oppressed and withdrawn character. Álvarez Mesén heralds herself as not just a strong writer, but also as someone who can deftly fit images to her words. Frequent use of shallow focus to mimic Clara’s restricted world is combined with shots of Costa Rica’s beautiful nature that slowly enriches Clara’s life after Santiago enters her world. Add to that a superb understated central performance, and you have in Clara Sola a film that puts Álvarez Mesén squarely on the map.