The title character of The Holy Girl (La Niña Santa) is a teenager caught at that awkward crossroads of adolescence and adulthood where, even as one is encouraged to put away childish things, the domain of parents and teachers seems as remote as a distant galaxy. For young Amalia (Maria Alché), that frustration is heightened by the fact that she’s coming of age in La Cienaga, a fictional Argentine town whose name translates as "the swamp" and whose adult inhabitants are like beasts trapped in a muddy quagmire, transfixed by the spectacle of their own beautiful decay. Previously, the town formed the setting, and the title, for writer-director Lucrecia Martel’s 2001 debut feature, in which a drunken matriarch and her extended bourgeois family wilted away beneath a late-summer sun. This time, the setting is a shabby hotel that, like its glacially sad proprietress, Helena (who happens to be Amalia’s mother), remembers grander days. Though the weather is warmer, it’s hard not to be reminded of the Overlook and its gallery of ghostly occupants frozen in time.
The movie moves between two parallel universes, each rendered by Martel with a claustrophobic precision that sent one colleague fleeing from the theater halfway through The Holy Girl’s premiere at last year’s Cannes Film Festival — not because he disliked the film, he would later say, but because he was desperate for a little fresh air. We begin with Amalia and her best friend, Josephina (Julieta Zylberberg), who titter and giggle their way through their afterschool Bible study, occasionally voicing a half-serious query about the rewards of religious devotion, but more often gossiping — with the grossed-out glee that is the propriety of the sexually naive — about the extracurricular exploits of a senior classmate. Though no longer exactly children, the girls are as awash in the freedoms and unconditional certainties of youth as Helena (Mercedes Morán, who played the moderately less despicable cousin in La Cienaga) is worn down by the disappointments of middle age. Some time ago, her husband left her, remarried and is soon to be the father of twins. Back at the hotel, surrounded by her overworked and underappreciated hospitality staff, Helena welcomes a conference of medical doctors who, for a few days, will inhabit these yellowed corridors.
The Holy Girl is about what happens when these worlds collide — when one of the conference attendees, the balding and bespectacled Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), brushes up against Amalia in a less-than-fatherly way, sending her into a spiral of confusion more religious than sexual. (No matter the comic obliviousness with which Helena proceeds to court the married Jano herself.) Could it be that Amalia has been touched not just by Dr. Jano’s erection, but by the hand of God? Could it be that she has, at last, stumbled upon her own virtuous "vocation," as a heavenly Lolita sent to lead her Humbert Humbert out of wayward temptation and into the light? What follows from here is hard to pin down, largely because Martel, like the ear, nose and throat specialist Dr. Jano, is less interested in uniform wholes than she is in fragmentary pieces. As with La Cienaga, the story of The Holy Girl is one told through askance glances, fleeting reflections, actions relegated to odd corners of the frame, and faces filmed in such tight close-up that the screen seems to buckle under their weight. It’s a style at once ravishing and mysterious, austere and intimate, carrying with it the suggestion that even cinema may be powerless to invade the most clandestine antechambers of human behavior.
Yet it’s not nearly as grave as all that. Martel is among the best of a new generation of Argentine filmmakers (also including Lisandro Alonso, Daniel Burman and Adrián Caetano) who grew up through the decades of political corruption and economic calamity, and have now taken to surveying that aftermath with a pronounced suspicion of bourgeois complacency and a skepticism towards institutional authority. Which, in Martel’s case, amounts to a highly acerbic view of Catholicism. Perverted innocence and distorted faith may abound in The Holy Girl — and with her heavy brow and distant beauty, Amalia seems eerily primed to join Lars von Trier’s Bess and Robert Bresson’s Mouchette in that category of devoted young things too pure for this sallow earth. But Martel’s own attitude is distinctly that of a backslider. She views salvation as but one of many possible (and equally corruptible) paths on the road to enlightenment — or, perhaps, to merely surviving puberty.
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THE HOLY GIRL (LA NIÑA SANTA) | Written and directed by LUCRECIA MARTEL | Produced by LITA STANIC | Released by HBO Films and Fine Line Features | At Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7; Sunset 5