Review: CLARA SOLA, When Quiet Desperation Explodes
What does it mean to leave a life of quiet desperation? The quote's originator might have been referring to people's values, but we could take our own interpretation, of how too many people are unable to find happiness and contentment. Much to do with the pressures of existence, increasing immesurably in recent years, but it can also come from family, tradition, and attending expectations. And sometimes, perhaps inevitably, that desperation will leak, or explode.
Clara Sola tells the story of just such an explosion. Costa Rican-Swedish director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén's feature debut simmers with anger, longing, and lust; the story of a woman repressed her entire life by tradition, who discovers the pwoer that others thought to use for themselves, might be far more powerful in her own hands. But that power can make things worse before they are better.
When we first meet Clara (Wendy Chinchilla Araya), she is trying to get her horse Yuca to come back to her. Clara is stopped by a non-existent line, a purple ribbon tied to a postd beyond which she is not allowed to cross by herself. She is allowed to do very little by herself, even at 40 years old. Born with a severe curvature in her spine, Clara is said to have healing powers, and so her mother Fresia keeps her effectively locked away, physically and mentally - Clara only leaves the property with others, and lives with Fresia and her niece Maria (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza). But one day, Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón) comes to look after Yuca, and Clara feels something she only vaguely understands, but soon overpowers her.
There is something fantastical in the woods, whether seeping into Clara or from her - or perhaps it is a circle. She has a connection to the earth, to animals, to insects that others do not, and cannot explain. And as much as her mother and Maria love her, they also exploit this gift, as a source of income. The mother will not allow Clara to have surgery that would help her back and her constant pain; everyone infantilizes her, so it's impossible to know whether her seeming immaturity and inability to understand social cues comes from a developmental problem, or the way her growth has been stunted. Only Santiago treats her as a whole individual.
Likening her to the Virgin Mary becomes a curse; Clara is punished for pursuing her sexual pleasure, to ask for anything that might give her happiness, and so naturally her reaction is that of a angry child. Her magic reveals itself in subtle ways, with changes in the colour of plants, literally breathing life back into the dead. We want to hold her, help her run away, and yet we are in more than a little awe of her growing power, that her desire drags out of her.
For her family, everything relates to the Virgin Mary, a religious idol that leaves no room for Clara to be her own person; perhaps Mary too longed to release some understandable anger in the face of a role thrust upon her against her will. Fresia rubs chillis on Clara's hands when she catches her masturbating; Clara responds by stealing Maria's quinciñera dress. Clara is not afraid to rasie the stakes when she realizes just how trapped she is in this broken, pained body, that her mother refuses to assist. And any little sympathy is perhaps blown into larger proportion than Clara should expect.
Chinchilla Araya is astonishing as Clara, never making her without sympathy, showing us the justification for her sullenness, her dangerous dreaming, the ignorance forced upon her. She knows that what is inside her is not the result of some singular god who expects conformity, but as she finds her longing and jealousy growing, she understands this is part of what the conformity has tried to repress, and what she and her nature, and this fantastical nature that connects her, is trying to bring out.
Like a slow, pained moan that slowly builds into a furious scream, Clara Sola is a remarkable feature debut from Álvarez Mesén, full of desire, anger, love, and magic, with a heroine you want to protect even as you are in slight fearful awe.
Clara Sola opens theatrically in New York on July 1st, and Los Angeles on July 8th.
- Nathalie Álvarez Mesén
- Maria Camila Arias
- Nathalie Álvarez Mesén
- Daniel Castañeda Rincón
- Wendy Chinchilla Araya
- Ana Julia Porras Espinoza