THE HOLY GIRL (La Nina Santa)
Directed by Lucrecia Martel (2004)
"The Holy Girl is not about the confrontation between good and evil, but about the difficulties in distinguishing one from the other" - Lucrecia Martel
The combination of budding adolescent sexuality and Catholic Sunday School sermonizing leads to confusion and trouble in Lucrecia Martel's remarkable second film The Holy Girl. Similar in style to Alain Cavalier's masterful Thrse, another film about religious fervor, The Holy Girl is an extremely intimate series of minimalist vignettes in which the story unfolds in glimpses and whispered conversations, in "a slow reverie of quick moments". As in Thrse, there is no approval or disapproval of behavior, only a snapshot of events that the viewer is left to interpret -- and it can be a challenge.
Set in La Salta, the same small Northern Argentine town as Martel's first feature La Cinaga, the film takes place at a run down hotel that is hosting a medical convention of ear, nose, and throat doctors. The scene is a constant flux of people and movement and it is difficult at first to sort out the characters. Amalia (Maria Alch) is the sixteen-year old daughter of the hotel's manager Helena (Mercedes Moran) who is recently divorced and lives with her brother Freddy (Alejandro Urdapilleta). Helena suffers from an inner ear problem that is reflected in a discordant ringing noise that affects her relationship with the world around her.
As the film opens, Ins (Mia Maestro), a young Catholic teacher leads a group of girls in choir practice. "What is it, Lord, you want of me?" she sings. Overcome with emotion, tears well up in her eyes but Amalia and her friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) merely whisper to each other about the teacher's alleged love affairs. The talk in class is about the student's "mission" and how they can recognize the signs that point to God's calling. Amalia thinks she sees a sign when a doctor attending the conference, Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso) goes in for some sexual touching while she stands in a group listening to a performance on the Theremin, an instrument that is not touched, but is played by disturbing the surrounding air (perhaps the way adults ought to deal with adolescents).
The character's motivations are complex and defy easy categorizing. Jano is a family man with children but seems driven by sexual longings. Helena, still seething that her ex-husband has just fathered twins by his new wife, is attracted to Jano but her advances are not reciprocated and her relationship with Freddy has a hint of more than brotherly love. Josefina teases her young cousin but holds back from committing herself, yet fully engages in kissing with Amalia, though what it means to them is uncertain. Amalia thinks that her mission is to save Dr. Jano and seductively follows him around the hotel, even entering his room when he is not there. At first not relating Amalia's stalking to the incident in the crowd, Jano becomes fearful that his medical career will be jeopardized when he discovers her identity, but the die is cast and Amalia's casual relating the incident to Josefina leads to unintended results.
The Holy Girl is elusive and somewhat disorienting, yet it remains an extraordinary achievement, full of intensity and crackling tension, true to the way people act when they are dealing with feelings bubbling beneath the surface. The girls live in their own little world, oblivious to the havoc they have unleashed and it is Martel's brilliant direction that allows us to enter that world, and it is not always comfortable. What happens in the film may be inappropriate but it never seems perverse. We expect the characters to be either heroes or villains but Martel sees them only as flawed human beings. Like the knowing half-smile etched on Amalia's face, her universe is imbued with a mystery that simply observes rather than evaluates. If the ending does not provide us with immediate gratification, it may be because it respects that mystery.