The brief but striking filmography of Lucrecia Martel, whose three feature films are the subject of a weekend-long UCLA retrospective, has established the 42-year-old as one of the brightest lights of the generation of Argentine filmmakers who grew up during the decades of political and economic corruption and has taken to surveying the aftermath with a healthy suspicion of bourgeois decadence and institutional authority. The title character of Martel’s 2004 film The Holy Girl (La Niña Santa)is a teenage girl coming of age in La Ciénaga, a fictional town (modeled on Martel’s own hometown of Salta) 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. The town also forms the setting, and the title, for Martel’s 2001 debut feature, in which a drunken matriarch (Graciela Borges) and her extended family wilted away beneath a late-summer sun. In The Holy Girl, the principal setting is a shabby hotel that recalls The Shining’s Overlook and its gallery of ghostly occupants frozen in time. There, the world of young Amalia (whose mother is the hotel’s glacially sad proprietress) collides with that of the balding and bespectacled Dr. Jano, a hotel guest who brushes up against Amalia in a less-than-fatherly way, sending her into a spiral of confusion more religious than sexual. Could it be that Amalia has been touched not just by Dr. Jano’s erection, but by the hand of God? In both films — as well as Martel’s latest, The Headless Woman (which sneaks at UCLA before opening commercially later this summer) — the story is 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 nearly buckles 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 the human psyche.
UCLA Film & Television Archive at the Billy Wilder Theater; through Sat., July 18. www.cinema.ucla.edu)