‘Clara Sola’: Subtly Evocative Horror Alternative Brings Natural Magic to Miracles

Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’sClara Sola” is spellbinding and sorrowful, perplexing and subtle, but it begs questions of the purest faith, and its most tortious acts of selflessness. Is it blasphemy for a woman who has been visited by the Virgin Mary to desire a sexual awakening? 

This film’s 40-year-old mystic, Clara (Wendy Chinchilla Araya), is a mesmerizing human, with an almost feral nature. She identifies with the forest life that surrounds her small Costa Rican village. Clara’s connection to the natural world is a haven from the religious burdens she has to carry. Here she has a mystical connection to the soil, which shakes the village and the traditions of the insular community. ‘Clara Sola’ opens on a scene of Clara with her white mare, Yuca. She calls the horse stubborn, and warns what may happen if the animal doesn’t follow her. 

The mystical morality play follows the beats of Brian de Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, “Carrie.” One of the first coming-of-age horror films, it also mixed religious extremism with sexual self-empowerment. Clara is Sissy Spacek’s Carrie as a 40-year-old virgin trapped in a failing body, and slow to social interaction. Sexual discovery is the same trigger to supernatural power in both works, the climaxes happen at a rite-of-passage. Instead of a prom, the slow fuse is lit at María’s (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza) quinceañera celebration, and burns through alternately desecrated religious icons. 

The biggest tease of the original film’s premise comes from Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón), a mirror to the Billy Nolan character. New to the scene, he has a sweetly convincing romantic bond with María, and a more intimate relationship with Clara. When they first meet, Santiago asks Maria if her aunt is “always that angry?” The niece deadpans, “If she was really angry, we’d know about it.” This works as comic relief because it takes the place of the kid on the bicycle the original telekinetically gifted protagonist sent flying. 

Most of the tension is through foreshadowing, and we see little of the mania of Piper Laurie’s Margaret White in Clara’s mother, Fresia. Played disarmingly and naturally by Flor María Vargas Chavez, she is religious, overprotective, and brutally sacrosanct. Clara’s suffering is cinematically rendered integral to her spirituality. Fresia rejects free surgery to repair her daughter’s twisted spine because “God gave her to me like this. She stays like this.” María begs her to reconsider the reasoning when she asks why she let her get braces. “It’s not the same thing,” Fresia explains.

Clara may be an otherworldly presence Fresia doesn’t understand, but she knows how to exploit. The sick, sad, lost and despairing pray for delivery from pain, along with a subtle hint their inflictions may be internalized within the empathic Blessed Virgin healer. Fresia believes in Clara’s abilities, and is a true believer in helping others, but her faith in her physically and developmentally disabled child’s promotional value diminishes with ability.

Clara is believable, and Araya gives a sympathetic performance, her regret is constantly on the edge of explosion. She wears her repressed urges and awkwardness like the lipstick she demands to try. The aura is delicate, sensual and earthy, evoking magical realism through naturalistic immersion. She is one with nature. Her horse Yuca trots in front of tourist guides, her pet beetle, Ofir, nestles in her hair. Her natural state is free, and by her nature defies social construct. She blends with the earth as a coping mechanism.

Cinematographer Sophie Winqvist indulges the primordial introspection with the menace and beauty of primal scream therapy, framing touch, feel, and breath, along fog, plants, rain, insects and animals, focusing on hands as they rise into health as a group or sink into mud with divine conviction. Clara closes the leaves of the “don’t touch me” plant, Mimosa pudica, which closes when you touch it, and coaxes it to reopen, much like Clara’s sexual awakening blooms like a flower from the first petal she offers a young friend with a wistfully longing read on the line “Should we practice kissing?”

Clara’s supernatural interactions become commonplace, while Maria’s birthday celebrations are the disruption. The quinceañera dance routines, makeup sessions, and perfect blue dress splinter the fabric of the family, and set Clara off on self-discovery. María’s coming-of-age triggers Clara’s awakening. 

“Clara Sola” is steeped in cultural tradition. Clara is offered up to worshippers at the Virgin Mary ceremony as a miraculous healer personally visited by the Blessed Virgin. It is the only time Clara is pampered. She is bathed, her hair is washed and she is guided into the dresses, but also trussed in a painful corset to allow her to stand against the curvature of her spine as she stares at a giant statue of Mary that leers with accusing eyes. Clara doesn’t fit into the saintly persona no matter how many chili peppers she rubs on her hands to stop her from masturbating. Pushed beyond her comfort zones, Clara begins refusing the ceremonies, and flouting conventions out of the same innocence and confusion as de Palma’s film, only with true spiritual insight.

Mesen and Maria Camila Arias’ screenplay lets the audience decide whether Clara’s abilities are real, and whether her instinctive gift of knowing “secret names” of animals and people will really bring tears to your eyes. The final special effects, however, are so plausibly understated, it is a liberating experience. The unviewable spiritual transformation is made imaginable through the downplayed anatomical perfection, as even the purple wounds beneath the skin become visible as if moved internally. The denouement is more effective because the transformation was foreshadowed in a passing angle of stiff outstretched fingers rendered lithe and unwrinkled when reaching for the sky. 

The film blurs the line between fact and fantasy through dedication to the magic of naturally fantastical setting. “Clara Sola” is not an overt horror film, many miraculous events are implied, and the overall atmosphere is subdued, but the performances are raw. The catharsis is cleansing, the rage contained, and vengeance has healing properties. The film is a later-life coming-of-age story, where mysticism is natural, pain is an act of God, and sexual acceptance can fix a broken back.

Clara Sola” releases July 1 in select theaters.