“God gave her to me like this.” This matter-of-fact utterance, one of many in the evocative new film, Clara Sola, may not seem like a significant moment when extracted from the story. Yet, not only is it significant, but it is also a line that is so bound up in a multiplicity of meaning that it bursts free from the course of the film’s quiet exploration of the self. Having been chosen for Costa Rica’s submission for Best International Feature Film at this year’s Oscars after it was screened at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, it is now getting a release from Oscilloscope Laboratories, it is a vibrant work that firmly plants itself in the details. In doing so, it becomes beautiful yet brutal in a patient and poetic debut feature from writer-director. Nathalie Álvarez Mesén.
When we first hear this line, it is being spoken by the ultra-religious Fresia (Flor María Vargas Chaves) about her 40-year-old daughter, Clara (Wendy Chinchilla Araya). Clara has a curved spine, something that a doctor has informed Fresia could easily be straightened with free surgery, preventing Clara from having medical problems. It represents an opportunity to save her from a life of further pain. Despite this, Fresia refuses to let the surgery go ahead despite the objections of the doctor. This is because, as she sees it, her daughter has been blessed by some sort of divinity that can never be altered. No matter what anyone says, this is how she wants Clara to stay for the rest of her life.
This early statement is one of the first key moments that mark the beginning of where the film draws from magical realism, a stylistic approach that weaves an otherwise realistic world into a broader tapestry that is more fantastical. It is all done in service of the story, creating a dynamic and distinct portrait of self-exploration that defies any preconceived notions. You see, while Clara’s mother is undeniably controlling of her daughter, she is not entirely wrong. She just also is not right in the way that she thinks. While she believes that Clara’s purpose is to use her gift to heal others who come to their home with various ailments, the reality is more malleable and interesting than that. Without saying what exactly it is that is discovered about Clara, the film becomes something more sublime when it embraces this magical realism.
Though it is all played with a light touch initially built around senses, magic is present in every quiet moment. Especially in retrospect, the film feels like it is operating on a quiet wavelength that hums along before becoming an all-consuming roar. From the way the sounds of nature wash over Clara to her growing connection to the creatures that surround her, it is magical in a grounded way that makes reality almost indistinguishable from the fantastical. The way this is all delicately crafted pushes the experience to new heights when you least expect it. For much of it, you question how much of the beliefs of Fresia are wishful thinking and built around being repressive of her daughter. There are moments that are painfully forlorn when seeing the impact this has on Clara, though they are almost always followed by a fraught step towards freedom. Though she does not have many friends, the small connections she begins to form take on a spiritual quality. This is due to exquisite sound design and an almost sacred manner in which everything is meticulously framed to create maximum emotional impact.
One such moment comes when Clara is alone, seeking solace in a small bug she has dubbed Ofir. When she discovers it is no longer moving, panic sets in and she exclaims “don’t you die” before attempting to bring it back to life. Remarkably, and notably, it works. Though this does not occur right away, instead, playing out sometime later, it is a stunning moment that shows how Clara is capable of using her power as she sees fit without needing others to direct her. Even if viewed as a metaphor, as magical realism carries a thematic meaning not reliant on being literal, it speaks to her growing sense of self-determination that is as compelling as it is cathartic.
This resurrection, while minimal in nature, feels no less revelatory when it happens. The way it is shot makes it into a scene that is overflowing with awe, capturing a magical feeling in the most simple of moments. You find yourself believing every single aspect of what is happening, both buying into the scene and what it represents for Clara as she struggles to break free of all that has held her down. It leads her down a path where she learns more about herself and what she wants for her life which makes it all the more moving. It never spells out its intentions for you, instead, letting them all patiently linger and sink in gradually.
This lacks a linear development that lays everything out may be off-putting to those who desire a straightforward experience. Indeed, there are likely many different reads on the nature of Clara’s powers and their significance to the story. However, just as magic is often ill-defined and defies logic, so too does the film. This is worth admiring for this more ambitious approach as it only draws us deeper into the world of film, creating an arresting experience that is both overwhelming and immersive. The way the film wraps you up in every detail ensures that the central journey of its character is always front of mind.
As Clara begins to embrace her own desires and carve out her own place in the world, we see how the foundational beliefs that sought to control her can be turned on their head. It is not a system of religion that frees her, but a more personalized process of spiritual discovery. The way it uses magical realism allows it to better delve into this journey, becoming a delicate character study that is hard to shake. Even as magical realism can be exciting in its own right, using it to shape a portrait of a complex person makes it all the more impactful. This is felt all the way up until its stunning final frames where we witness a wordless realization that rocks us to our very core.