From the 42nd New York Film Festival: The Holy Girl
An Argentine hotel serves as the setting in Lucrecia Martel’s smart, faux-languorous second film, The Holy Girl
e location is of paramount importance to Martel’s characters, which are stuck in a hesitant transient state embodied by the idea of a hotel in constants flux of people, ideas, and possibilities. For Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), the affliction seems temporary. He is staying at the hotel for a weeklong medical conference but his attention wanders first to a momentary sexual molestation in a crowd, and later, and with less feeling, to Helena (Mercedes Morán), a divorced local woman. Helena is an events coordinator at the hotel and lives there with her teenage daughter Amalia (María Alche). Separated physically and emotionally from her ex-husband who is now married and expecting twins, Helena is suffering not just spiritually but physically as well, from a quasi-mysterious constant ringing noise in her ear, reflecting a discontinuous, tragically out of tune relationship with the world around her.
ena’s brother also works at the hotel she really has only her daughter to herself and quickly gravitates to the muted, passive come-ons of Dr. Jano. While Jano readily engages in conversation with Helena, the excursion from real life represented by the conference get-away leads him to briefly indulge in his perversions, however harmless in actual conduct. It turns out that the girl he molests is Amalia, who, inspired by her class on Catholic vocations, sees in the character of Dr. Jano a person she can help. How exactly she plans on doing this is a mystery Amalia keeps to herself, and when Dr. Jano realizes she is Helena’s daughter and his perversion loses its anonymity, he physically repulses her attention, avoids contact with Helena, and tension inside the hotel builds.
With a remarkable directorial assurance, Martel crafts a film that is paradoxically sharply realized and almost dreamy in its evocations. The hotel atmosphere is one of perpetual haze despite the constant comings and goings, and lends well to the building’s inherent nature as a fleeting stopover. Unfortunately, Amalia and Helena are required to live there and cannot use the hotel as a retreat from family or morals as many of the other doctors do, indulging in sexual escapades and heavy drinking away from their practices and families.
Amalia’s typical teenage curiosity and search for self-meaning is personified in her interest in her orthodox Catholic class, which stringently encourages its girls to find historical stories exemplifying the godly vocational calling of women. Though Amalia mem
orizes long prayers and incantations for frivolous reasons, and her desire to find a vocation in her life may not be an earnestly religious one, they are both outpourings from the same source-a teenager who is beginning to feel the need for a purpose in life to define herself. That her mind blurs the distinction of moral good by helping Dr. Jano and physical pleasure by trying to indulge and encourage his perversion points to a sincere attempt at a confused objective. The plight of other characters echo that of Amalia, though the adults are more resigned to their fates, and those stuck forever in the hotel (Helena, needing a man; Helena’s brother, who is separated from his Chilean wife who took their children back to Chile) are at the mercy of the momentary diversions provided by the traveler turnover of the hotel.
Martel employs unusual variations on conventional blocking and a noticeable manipulation of The Holy Girl
’s sound design to layer her film atmospherically and formally in what could have been a featureless dramatization of a young girl desiring a
n older man. Diversions into near-dream imagery-Amalia and her girlfriend’s giggly panicked run through a forest that was a scene of an accident; a sonic attempt at seduction; the lazy, tender moments spent between Amalia and her best friend Josefina (Julieta Zlyberberg)-keep Martel’s subtle, intelligent direction attuned with the story’s purposeful lack of definition, elaboration, or conclusiveness. The Holy Girl
may not have the most explicit of narratives, but the strength and allure of its gentleness, subtly, and aura are evident right from the start, and Martel’s already-mature directorial vision guides the film satisfactorily to its unexpectedly, but understandably, fleeting conclusion.