Cannes Review: Clara Sola

Directors’ Fortnight premiere Clara Sola has many aspects in common with a coming-of-age sexual awakening story — and yet the heroine of Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s drama is 40 years old. A sheltered woman living in remote Costa Rica in the shadow of her religious mother, Clara (Wendy Chinchilla) appears to have learning difficulties that are never discussed or named. Clara is just Clara — her family and small group of neighbors accept her differences. But they may be also underestimating her, as well as exploiting her otherworldly quality when she is paraded as a healer in front of visiting tourists. Does Clara have genuine gifts? First-time feature helmer Mesén leaves this and more open to debate in an atmospheric film that blends magical realism with psycho-sexual drama.

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Childlike Clara begins to feel sexual stirrings when she spends time with Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón), the boyfriend of her teenage niece, Maria. He is a kind man who enjoys walks in nature with Clara, and gently aids her understanding of life. When Clara tries out lipstick, he teaches her how to purse her lips to blot it with a tissue. When menstrual blood runs down her leg, he gives her a cloth and averts his eyes. It is almost as if Clara is being surprised by a belated puberty, and it’s intriguing to see a male character witness this, rather than a female friend or relative.

While just 15, Maria is already more experienced than her aunt, and Clara eyes her with fascination. “Where did your hair go?” she asks inquisitively when they shower together, looking downwards. Much to her mother’s disapproval, Clara’s curiosity is also partly fueled by TV: she asks several boys if they can “practice kissing” as she’s seen on the television.

When it’s not being explicitly erotic, the film is still loaded with sexual symbolism and a deep connection to nature. Clara literally rolls in the earth, surrounded by the gushing of lush forest streams, beautifully shot by DOP Sophie Winqvist Loggins.

Dancer Chinchilla is impressive in her first film role, while Rincón puts in a sensitive turn. Both tread a tricky area around scenes that explore consent, under Mesén’s confident direction. Other key roles go to non-humans: Clara feels a strong affinity with a white horse called Yuca, who also has a symbolic part to play. Clara claims to know the “secret name” of animals and humans — the self they are inside. It’s no surprise to learn that her own secret name is “Sola” — she is a unique woman, longing for connection, but also finally forging her own path in life.

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