Costa Rica’s entry for Best International Feature at last year’s Academy Awards has become one of this year’s best films. Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s “Clara Sola” is the perfect example of how religion is abused by nefarious people who don’t realize their behavior is contradictory to what Christianity stands for. It’s easy to compare the film to Stephen King’s “Carrie” as a devout mother (Flor María Vargas Chaves) exploits her 40-year-old daughter (Wendy Chinchilla Araya) who may or may not have healing powers bestowed by the Virgin Mary. Take away the film’s spirituality and you’re left with a tortuous story of oppression that keeps the audience mesmerized.

The film takes place in a remote village in Costa Rica where Clara (Araya), a reclusive 40-year-old woman, is being repressed by her devout and overzealous mother Dona Fresia (Flor María Vargas Chaves) who believes her daughter has been graced with healing powers by the Virgin Mary. Does she really believe that or is she a scam artist exploiting her daughter? Periodically Dona holds revivals where the public is asked to make a monetary donation to touch Clara. She parades her daughter around in a white dress and a veil, which symbolizes Clara’s desire to humble herself before God.

For someone who has been reportedly “touched” by the Blessed Mother, life is grim for Clara. Her mother gives plenty of affection to Clara’s 15-year-old niece Maria (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza) who lives with them in the small, battered home that resembles a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Dora’s treatment of Clara includes placing markers around the property that Clara is not allowed to cross. If she catches her 40-year-old daughter touching herself inappropriately she places her hand over a burning candle or rubs a chili pepper on it. Of course, the punishment in the name of religion is usually followed by prayer.

And what is probably the most disturbing aspect of Clara’s life is the fact that Dona will not allow doctors to perform corrective surgery (which is covered 100% by the insurance) on her daughter who suffers from scoliosis of the spine, “God gave her to me like this, she stays like this.”

The only pleasure in Clara’s life is the family’s white stallion Yuca, the two have a close bond. The horse is used to bring in revenue from tourists, but Dona is secretly looking to sell the animal to raise extra funds to pay for Maria’s quinceañera. Yuca is handled by Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón), a kind young man employed by Dona who befriends Clara which awakens a yearning she’s never experienced before. Maria, however, has the hots for Santiago and begins pursuing him causing tension between her and Clara.

It’s not too often you see a coming-of-age story centered on a grown mature woman. Newcomer Wendy Chinchilla Araya delivers a terrific and nuanced performance as Clara. It’s ironic that Araya, a talented professional dancer, makes her acting debut in a role that restricts her body movement. As someone who has been trained to express her emotions primarily through the movement of her body, Araya had to rely on expressing Clara’s disposition while being restrained, much like the character she plays. She succeeds with flying colors. We realize that Clara is a force to be reckoned with, strong on the inside with a tenacious nature, unyielding in her quest for self-empowerment.

Clara also has a deep connection with nature and the insects that reside in it. For such a strong character, Araya’s gentle performance as she interacts with nature, animals, and humans — until she is pushed to her limit — highlights the internal struggle that resides within Clara.

Costa Rican-Swedish director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén and co-writer Maria Camila Arias, create an engrossing story that never abandons the mysticism aspect. Is Clara the real deal? The relationship between the 40-year-old and her mother is reminiscent of “Carrie” although, unlike Stephen King’s novel, the horror in “Clara Sola” is natural. Vivid characters are brought to life by the talented cast, many first-time actors, and the cinematography by Sophie Winqvist Loggins beautifully captures the lush greens of the Costa Rican countryside while the indoor scenes use light effectively to spotlight an important element in the scene — such as an insect or a statue — while the surrounding area is a bit darker and shadowy to fall in line with the film’s haunting tone.

(3 ½ stars)

Now showing in limited release

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.