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ENT physicians gather at a provincial hotel in Salta. The hotel owner, Helena, is subdued, brittle, avoiding the calls of her ex-husband's pregnant wife. Family dysfunction seems everywhere. Helena's daughter, Amalia, about 14, discusses vocations in a Catholic girls group. Their teen imaginations conflate the erotic, the religious, and the lurid. Amalia notices Dr. Jano, and he notices her. She decides to make him her vocation, she follows him, he rubs against her in a public crowd, he's appalled at his actions. Meanwhile, Helena believes Jano is attracted to her even though he's married. Longing, guilt, scandal, and teen sensuality are set to collide.Written by
I'm in general not a fan of Spanish-language cinema, for the same reason that I don't care for Russian classical music; it's usually overheated and unsubtle, telegraphing emotions like Yiddish theater. For every hypnotic or erotic sequence in Almodovar, there's another that's just juvenile and sub-Freudian ( like the little man crawling into the woman's privates in Talk to Her. ) Even Luis Bunuel had moments where the rigor slackens and he seems to say, "Aw, I'll just wing it."
Well, the rigor never slackens in The Holy Girl. This film would make Maurice Pialat feel like he was wearing a neck brace. Lucrecia Martel makes so few concessions in her film-making that even the most advanced and cosmopolitan film buffs will be bewildered by the effort of comprehension they're faced with here ( as they always will be when confronted with the spiritual, by the way. ) Martel, to her credit, is completely immune to any trends in Spanish-language, not to say Argentinian film-making, and doesn't truckle to any stereotypes about hot-blooded Latins either. This film is as cold-blooded, analytical and lofty as they come. She has been compared to Claire Denis, but she's much more like the aforementioned Pialat, structuring her film in "blocks," so that each scene starts in media res, making us readjust and grapple for our bearings. From Cassavetes she has also learned a lot, especially the way every single shot is filled with peripheral, incidental characters who appear and disappear at random, but who contribute a steady stream of ambient chatter and small talk that Martel uses as white noise to bury the important dialogue. This sharpens the audience's attention and makes them search each and every frame for the aural and visual clues they'll need to penetrate the symbolic thicket.
I'll admit that my primal instinct is to gush unreservedly over such brazen world-cinema ambitions, but in this case, there was something missing, some sense of spontaneity or original flair. Is it that I've seen too many art-movies that construct a pasteboard purgatory and try to make the audience and the filmmaker complicit in a feeling of superiority over and above the struggling souls depicted? There's a rush of symbols in this film -- the Theremin, the theatrical presentation, the temperature-controlled pool, the spritzes of air freshener, and many more -- that point to Martel's concern with the way people fake their own lives, or what they consider to be pleasures. But, perhaps due to the late date of 2005, 40-odd years on from the premiere of L'Avenntura at Cannes, this feels like a preestablished "theme" rather than an obsession. The jouissance-as-limbo framework, in fact, is really nothing at this date but shorthand for film festival quality that every self-respecting intellecto is supposed to automatically scratch their chins and snap their fingers about. And The Holy Girl is missing the distinctive personal feature that would put it over the top, whether it's the sky-high cringe factor of Dumont's 29 Palms, or the the male-gaze Lolita lust of Pialat's A Nos Amours. This film by contrast reminds me of certain dry-as-dust female professors I've had who pick over the corpse of To The Lighthouse but seem not to really be impassioned by it or anything else.
Then again, why am I insisting that a movie that's about passion has to be made with passion? I'm contradicting myself. Amalia, the titular holy girl, who we see masturbating and chasing after an older man, is not a real nymphet but actually much more like one of those female saints you read about who, racked with tumors, relish each moment of pain for the way it brings them closer to God. The catch is that, in this case, it's Amalia's puberty that serves as the tumor. What looks like the erotic raptures of a budding adolescent are actually paeans to God, who she sees as having sent her on a mission to save Dr. Janos from himself -- she conflates this feeling of the religious "purpose-driven life" with her own pubertal longings. But Martel makes sure to render her unclassifiable, immune from definitions, from psychology, even from humanity. She is, simply put, a non-sexual being ( I was about to say "defiantly non-sexual being" but she doesn't need to defy anyone, she is passively what she is, a glimmer of truth in a hive of fear and desperation. ) If Amalia directed this movie, it would be with exactly the same kind of disorienting, intensely-focused calm punctuated by fleeting mystical signs -- a testament to Martel's success, despite my reservations.
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