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HOLY GIRL, THE (LA NINA SANTA) (director/writer: Lucrecia Martel; cinematographer: Felix Monti; editor: Santiago Ricci; music: Andes Gerzenzon; cast: Mercedes Morán (Helena), Carlos Belloso (Dr. Jano), Alejandro Urdapilleta (Freddy), María Alché (Amalia), Julieta Zylberberg (Josefina), Mónica Villa (Mother Josefina), Marta Lubos (Mirta), Alejo Mango (Dr. Cuesta), Arturo Goetz (Dr. Vesalio), Mia Maestro (Inés); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Lita Stantic; HBO Films and Fine Line Features; 2004-Argentina/Italy/Netherlands/Spain-in Spanish with English subtitles)
“Martel’s distinctive and fascinatingly innovative style warrants her being considered as an auteur.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Lucrecia Martel’s (“La Ciénaga”) uniquely brilliant moody second feature is again set in the same provincial Argentine town as her first film, mostly at a hotel where a medical conference of ear, nose, and throat specialists is taking place. The spacious but dilapidated old hotel is owned and operated by the divorced Helena (Mercedes Moran) and her brother Freddy (Alejandro Urdapilleta); both are lonely souls seeking comfort from the cold world in their trusting intimate but innocent relationship. They were both raised as children there and Helena, a former swimming champion, finds no fault in raising her teenage daughter Amalia (María Alché) there though others from a distance say a hotel is no home.

Helena finds the ordinary looking bespectacled married Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), one of the guests at the conference, appealing but doesn’t realize the middle-aged man already randomly caught the attention of her confused daughter. She is at the age where both sexual and spiritual highs are treated with the same excitement. After her Catholic religious teacher tells the class to look out for a sign from God about her faith and vocation, she’s at a demonstration by the window of a musical store for a strange electronic musical instrument called a theremin, named after the inventor. In the crowd, Jano rubs up against the teen in a sexually molesting gesture, as he also watched how that unique instrument was played through manipulation and not by touch–two surrounding antennas were activated by hand movement. It’s an instrument that is pitch perfect and is the ideal metaphor for the subdued film, that also plays its lyrical tune in such an eerily subtle way that it goes through your skin without seemingly being played.

Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg), Amalia’s close and more sexually developed friend, wickedly gossips about the Catholic school teacher running off to meet one of the doctors but really has nothing to say. In confidence, Amalia tells Josefina about her molestation and swears her to secrecy. The curious Amalia, the so-called Holy Girl, has been aroused by the sexual contact, but is rebuffed by the embarrassed Jano as she follows him around the hotel and at times runs into him by chance. She is forgiving of him, but is conflicted on how to handle this delicate situation. Apparently pleased that she can arouse a mature man, one whom her mother flirts with, but is also ashamed of her sexual feelings.

The filmmaker lets her narrative develop slowly without explaining relationships, chance encounters, character motives or clearing up plot points. As the film takes us through the dehumanized claustrophobic hotel setting the story becomes connected by the trite doctor conferences, swims in the gloomy looking Olympic-sized pool, the hotel noises, and the idle chatter from the schoolgirls, professional guests and the depressed siblings (Amalia’s uncle has been psychologically wounded that his Chilean wife went back to her country with his kids). It’s a hermetic world that reflects the reality of the real world we are accustomed to, but has a different feel to it than other pics that were also concerned with psychological, religious and sexual things. Martel’s response seems to be humanistic, mystical and personal, without any anti-Catholic agenda or any ironic intentions. It’s the kind of psychological world created where fear and desire don’t need words for us to see it expressed, as the faces of those coming-of-age schoolchildren or middle-aged parents are consumed by looking to find their true identities and what can make them happy, and are too self-absorbed to think of much else.

When Josefina drops a dime on her friend and the conclusion is set to have Helena and Jano involved in enacting a patient-doctor conference about the ringing noises in her ear, with Jano’s wife and child arriving for the last days of the conference, we undoubtedly can expect the worst. But what Martel does is let us imagine the worst and ends the film in a soothingly ambiguous comical manner. The elusive ending is superbly accomplished by a filmmaker who is very sure of her ability and for good reason, as she presents a tense and haunting film that is both innocent and cynical–a film that reaches for heights while seemingly not interested in reaching heights.

The thirtysomething Martel in her short career has already established herself with acclaim from critics and has developed an international reputation. Martel’s distinctive and fascinatingly innovative style warrants her being considered as an auteur–a filmmaker I can’t wait to see what she gives us next.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”