Holy Girl, The (2005): Lucrecia Martel’s Follow-Up to La Cienega

With “The Holy Girl (“La Nina Santa”), the follow-up to her impressive 2001 feature debut, “La Cienega” (“The Swamp”), writer-director Lucrecia Martel emerges as one of the most talented figures of the new Argentinean cinema.

A highlight of last year’s Cannes film Festival, “The Holy Girl” is impressive in every respect: subject matter, storytelling, and style. Defying easy categorization, the movie works on any number of levels: as a coming-of-age saga, suspense thriller, family melodrama, and even religious parable. “The Holy Child” was one of the few films in the Cannes competition lineup in which almost every frame was imbued with tension, and the evolution of the narrative and its characters was consistently intriguing and entirely unpredictable.

In her second film, Martel offers an intimate exploration of the burgeoning sexuality and religious fervor of two teenage girls, Amalia (Maria Alche) and her best friend, Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg). Artfully piecing together seemingly disparate details, fragments of sounds, and small moments, Martel creates a highly potent portrait of adolescent life, which is constructed as a mosaic.

Amalia lives in the town of La Cienega with her divorced mother Helena (Mercedes Moran) and her uncle Freddy (Alejandro Urdapilleta) in the crumbling, run-down Hotel Termas, which her family owns and runs. Set almost entirely within a hotel, the story conveys vividly its locale’s ambience with admirable accuracy and detail. After their routine choir rehearsals, the girls gather in the parish church for further instruction in faith and vocation. They are encouraged to ponder about such issues as what does God want from me How do I discern between the temptation of the Devil and the calling of God In between these teaching sessions, the girls engage in gossip and secretive whispers, as most girls of that age do, about all kinds of matters.

The lives of the two girls and their families intersect with those of a group of visiting orhinolaryngologists (ear, nose and throat specialists) who are staying at the hotel for a medical convention. The most prominent guest is a somewhat mysterious, a middle-aged doctor named Jano (Carlos Belloso). The plot kicks off during an outdoor scene, when a large crowd gathers in the street to watch a man playing the musical instrument theremin. Amalia is in the large, anonymous crowd. Suddenly, a man standing behind her presses himself sexually against her body. Focusing on Amalia’s POV, the scene is splendidly shot and edited. Later, in the hotel, she discovers that this man is Dr. Jano.

Drawn in strange ways to the doctor, Amalia begins to spy on him. Dr. Jano never notices her presence, but he does notice her still attractive mother. For her part, Helena enjoys Jano’s courtly attention, but she has little hope since she knows he is married and has a family.

Several days later, Amalia confides in Josefina about her street encounter with Dr. Jano, and convinces herself that her secret and sacred mission is to save him from sin. Soon, the respected doctor gets caught up in Amalia’s web of good intentions, with his whole world on the brink of collapse. Amalia’s adolescent obsession sets off a chain reaction of unintended catastrophes, both personal and social.

With a deep understanding of the temptation of goodbut also the evil it can cause–“The Holy Girl” explores delicately and subtly such serious themes as frustration and desire, temptation and redemption. As written and directed by Martel, the film is full of ambiguities, the kind of which seldom exist in American films. Quite admirably, Martel avoids the pitfalls of turning Dr, Kano into a clear case of pedophilia, instead leaving it open-ended for each member of the audience to decide

“The Holy Girl” is more a tale about the dangers and the difficulties of differentiating good from evil than about the confrontation between good and evil. It feels like a personal film, drawing on Martel’s subjective experience as a practitioner of the Catholic religion, which had been teaching, as she says, “a way of thinking, a system of thought where the sense of things, and the sense of one’s existence, are revealed as a certainty.” In this film, Martel challenges the belief that “God has an arranged plan for everything, where things are organized towards an end.”

What happens when one reaches the conclusion that such an almighty architect does not exist, that our existence is more mysterious and less justified Inevitably, we’ll feel rather helpless. For Martel, helplessness is not something sad or bad, as long as human beings can take back the reins of their own existence as well as its responsibilities.

The film’s setting, a medical convention, is most suitable for the story, because it draws attention to the intersection of medicine and holiness, sick and healthy bodies, the lepers of Job, where God and the Devil hide, the saints who are sick from saintliness and their miraculous cures. Martel has described “The Holy Girl” as “sort of a surgical story that intends to draw a line between live tissue and moral prosthesis.”

A talent to watch, Martel was born in Salta, northern Argentina, in 1966. She began shooting scenes of her family life as a teenager, though never suspected she would study filmmaking. In 1986, she moved to Buenos Aires to study communication, after which she began making shorts, such as “Rey Muerto” (“Dead King”), which received several international awards. For three years, she directed documentaries for TV and children’s programs. In 1999, she received the Sundance Filmmakers Award for her script of “La Cienega” (“The Swamp”), about families in Northern Argentina, which became her highly-acclaimed feature debut.