Hearing Voices


In Argentina, a country racked by economic collapse, it has become a radical act to stop and listen to the sounds of life roiling beneath competing dogmas and to look past religious and ideological iconography. Taking that approach, Argentine director Lucrecia Martel’s award-winning 2001 debut film, La Ciénaga, patiently eavesdropped on booze-dulled middle-class decline. A formerly rich family’s good taste devolves into sloppy violence and sexual distraction against a backdrop of verdant reclamation—the family’s pool fills with rotting leaves; the children run wild in a forest that encroaches upon their crumbling manse. When one interviewer that year invoked the catchall “magic realism” to describe the film, Martel called the term fascist. “It implies,” she said “that there is something, a reality, into which some kind of magic then comes. I reject this idea completely.” Last fall, during the New York Film Festival, she elaborated. “One of the problems my generation has to deal with is that we are so caught up in a situation of crisis and rupture that really the only means of committing ourselves is taking some stance toward reality.”

With its more pointillistic story, her new film, The Holy Girl (made with the executive production blessing of Pedro Almodóvar), is more abstract than La Ciénaga. We’re still in Martel’s native Salta region, with its slow heat, circuitous rhythms, and class-race tensions that draw comparisons to the American South. This time we spy on a hotel proprietor’s daughter, Amalia, whose catechism is blurring with sexual urge. When a married doctor staying at the hotel flirts with Amalia’s divorced mother, and later rubs against Amalia in a crowded street, she believes she hears God’s call to save him. These developments unfold as less a plot than simply occasions to muse on the characters’ private motivations. Martel insists she’s not commenting on “teen sexuality,” but rather investigating “the inability to translate experiences that occur in the space of loneliness, in solitude.” She continues, “Whether you’re representing a child or an adult, you have to be very respectful of that mystery.”

The 38-year-old director says that in film, the dogma of psychoanalysis flattens that mystery. With her camera capturing private smiles, winces, and tics, and her microphone pulling ambient, subjective sounds, Martel struggles against what she finds to be orthodoxy of symbolism. Her fluid films exist to explore “the points of contact between people once you leave the psychoanalysis behind, taking it as a fact that one’s experience is also solitary experience.” Citing Hitchcock as the obvious model for psychoanalytic excess, she also puts the sham to M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. “That would be the example of the absolute death of the human spirit in the hands of psychology,” she says. “This very layered and complex reality—the idea that human beings who are alive and those who are dead share the same space—gets utterly shattered at that moment in which the only thing these dead people want is one thing to be resolved so they can disappear peacefully.”

Otherworldly whispers preoccupy The Holy Girl‘s Amalia and her friends, who listen for religious vocation. What they hear instead is divine hormonal buzz. Says Martel, “I think they are in fact the same thing. The birth of her sexual desire, which you can think of as a natural call, does get joined with this other wish for a call from God. In day-to-day experience I don’t think it’s strange to think of sexual desire as supernatural.” Martel’s soundtrack, too, urges us to hear perspectivally the drips and splashes around the hotel pool, a street musician’s theremin, the tones of the doctor’s hearing test, all manner of modern crash and drone. Says Martel, who defined La Ciénaga‘s family with recurring sound of rusted pool chairs being dragged along a concrete deck, “Without a doubt from my point of view the most important dialogue in the film is the soundtrack.” Even the humming appliances and chatter of the indigenous hotel staff are Martel’s way of relaying simmering class and racial acrimony without demagoguery. “In both my films,” she says, “I tried not to attempt to convey the feelings of a social class that I don’t belong to. Out of respect. I don’t feel I am someone who has that particular sensibility. I would rather take the distance, to try to transmit what is experienced in the most honest way—to only describe what I see.”