It’s taken Argentine writer-director Lucrecia Martel, not yet 40, only two features—her 2001 debut La Ciénaga and The Holy Girl
(La Ni Santa), opening this week—to establish a distinctive style, a recognizable world, and an international reputation. Indeed, on the strength of these films (and the premise of her third), Martel may well be developing a cosmology. All are set in her birthplace, the colonial city of Salta, tucked in Argentina’s northwest corner at the foot of the Andes and the edge of the rainforest. Martel has renamed the place La Ciénaga, “The Swamp.” Not without affection, she depicts it as a torpid provincial town of entropic hotels, crumbling estates, and large families—like her own.
The dreaminess of this claustrophobic locale is matched by the filmmaker’s vivid, elusive style (which she slyly attributes to her myopia). Martel courts disorientation. Her scenes usually begin with an off-center close-up. She has an aversion to establishing shots. The depth of field is often shallow. Narrative coalesces from a welter of details. La Ciénaga (which is showing May 2 at Cinema Village) is a sort of immersion in an alcohol-infused miasma of social relations, involving kids, dogs, servants, and two interlocking, accident-prone, dysfunctional clans. The Holy Girl, which had its local premiere at the 2004 New York Film Festival, is less humid and more detached; it concerns a 14-year-old girl’s religious obsession with the middle-aged doctor who takes advantage of a street performance to sexually touch her, and the complications that ensue when the doctor turns out to be attending a medical convention at the hotel owned by the girl’s mother.
Working against the grain of this potentially lurid story, Martel again builds her dryly comic drama from an accumulation of
recurring riffs and seemingly unrelated micro-incidents. Complicated family relations are only gradually made clear; narrative lines do not rush to converge. Where La Ciénaga seemed steeped in a Chekhovian sluggishness, The Holy Girl is more concerned with transience. With its chance meetings and hectic confusion of public and private space, the hotel is the perfect setting; with her morbid confusion between sexual and spiritual excitement, the adolescent Amalia (Maria Alché) is the perfect heroine.
Alternately innocent and cynical, backlit as though she were an angel but often framed from below to appear a mischievous devil, hair falling over her face, Martel’s heroine has an unreadable stare—her unselfconscious glower, a state akin to rapture, can unexpectedly break into a lopsided childish grin. Although she appears sullenly unimpressed by a Catholic-school discussion of faith and vocation, Amalia is only too receptive. No sooner has the teacher instructed the girls in her charge to be alert for the “call” than the magical sounds of a theremin summon both Amalia and the hapless Dr. Jano to their fates.
Such miracles are hilariously casual in
The Holy Girl. Having taken the salvation of Jano’s soul as her mission, the young frottagé prays by the side of the hotel pool, and suddenly her timid molester surfaces from the chlorinated depths—although, at that point, neither one notices the other’s presence. Over the next day or two, Jano will cautiously flirt with Amalia’s mother, Helena, a lonely and still-beautiful former championship swimmer. But in the arena of random encounters that is a hotel, he is stalked and ultimately confronted by his infinitely forgiving victim.
Martel has been compared to Luis Bu but her Catholic jokes are not anticlerical. Her moral sense seems far more characterized by agnostic irony than atheist satire, and given her narrative idiosyncrasies, she has a deep appreciation for mystical congruence. If anything, her skeptical sensibility seems a somewhat Gothic correlative to the rueful humanists of the Czech new wave Milos Forman and Ivan Passer. The only constant is ambiguity. Subtitled “The Temptation of Good and the Evil It Causes,”
The Holy Girl is a movie in which gossip travels and it’s difficult to keep a secret, but no one is ever really able to tell anybody anything.
Jano’s family arrives and he is scheduled to end the convention by enacting a doctor-patient scene with Helena. There is no way that things can’t end badly. And yet Martel handles the disaster in a completely unexpected way. Not the least remarkable thing about this deadpan, deceptively haphazard ensemble comedy, a movie as much choreographed as directed, is the way that—at the final moment—the mist simply evaporates.