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The sexual awakening of a woman in later years, ignited by the arrival in her life of a younger man, has become one of cinema’s most rehearsed storylines in recent times, from Philippe Faucon’s Amin (2018) to May el-Toukhy’s Queen of Hearts (2019) to Sophie Hyde’s Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022). The feature debut of Nathalie Álvarez Mesen, Clara Sola finds reserves of freshness in this narrative by situating it within a richly observed depiction of nature and community. Here, by a dank forest in Costa Rica, where Clara – a disabled woman thought by locals to have mystical powers – lives with her forbidding mother and precocious niece, everything hums with life and beauty.

Seen through Clara’s eyes, the world is charged with precious vitality: the woody huff and graze of a horse’s flaring nostrils; dew drops perched on a softly swaying cobweb; the mesmeric trance of a dance of human hands, raised aloft in spiritual communion at a vigil. Filmed lushly but with restraint by cinematographer Sophie Winqvist, this world is at once a prison and a solace for fortysomething Clara, cloistered and henpecked by her mother, who refuses to let doctors operate on Clara’s damaged spine for fear that it might impede her perceived gift for healing others. Clara is intellectually challenged, a strange creature at once downtrodden and exalted: blessed with seemingly extra-sensory qualities, she is nevertheless expected to conform to society’s strictures; when her mother catches her masturbating to a telenovela, she burns Clara’s fingers on the candles of a religious shrine.

Into such a world, it seems only natural that a man should arrive – Santiago, considered by Clara with as much tenderness and curiosity as she extends to Yuca, her fine white horse, or to a pet bug that she names Ofir and keeps in clumps of earthy moss under a sieve on her bedside table. As with those creatures, her connection to Santiago (played with heartstopping sweetness and candour by Daniel Castañeda Rincón) is through a sensuous, animal intimacy, but crucially, Santiago is different: he also elicits lust. In one particularly gorgeous scene, Álvarez Mesen films these two bodies, enlaced after a bracing dunk in a stream, skin dripping with water, breath starting and stopping, in a way that ably parses their difficult dynamic: Santiago’s beauty and generosity of spirit; their tacitly shared understanding of the world; Clara’s consuming but unrequited desire.

Clara, of course, is not destined for a happy ending: with quietly increasing fervour, the film describes her newfound rebellion against her family and community, culminating in a bravura sequence at Clara’s niece’s gaudy quinceañera. This scene – a dizzy whorl of shiny balloons and bubblegum pop, markedly at odds with the film’s heady but muted palette of leafy greens and Virgin Mary blues – stages a dramatic event that may or may not have a supernatural quality, consciously reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) in the way it brings the mounting turmoil to a head. Here, spurned by Santiago, Clara unleashes her fury before fleeing the scene; the film’s bittersweet conclusion leaves us none the wiser as to her future.

Anchoring all these events is a remarkable lead performance by Wendy Chinchilla Araya, in her screen debut, who uses her body – for she is also a dancer – to map all Clara’s feelings and contradictions. There is what feels like a kind of hallowed determination to Clara: she is earthy yet beatific; her silences hold vast depths of emotion. In her unsteady gait, in the slight hunch of shoulders, in the curious combination of mildness and rage that she conjures, Araya quite brilliantly shows a woman both at odds with her world, in its hampering codes and conventions, and at home in it, in the hushed, private connections she makes to her environment. Álvarez Mesen, staying close to Clara at all times, generates an immersive sort of intimacy not unlike that between director and protagonist in Déa Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning (2020), which similarly depicts a woman in rupture with her community.

Clara Sola’s story may be slight, but Álvarez Mesen’s touch is assured, at both macro and micro scale: the film deftly paints a picture of womanhood stifled by family, faith and sex, but finds time to dig into recesses of ambiguity within that framework. There, deep down, is beauty and pleasure, in the essence – caught, felt, and so soon gone – of being.

Clara Sola is in UK cinemas now.