December 01, 2005

The Holy Girl

Directed by Lucrecia Martel Starring Mercedes Morán, Carlos Belloso and Alejandro Urdapilleta

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

“It is a tale about good and evil,” writer/director Lucrecia Martel said of The Holy Girl in the film’s press notes. “Not about the confrontation between good and evil, but about the difficulties in distinguishing one from the other – a story about the dangers of differentiating good from evil.” Expanding upon that theme, she fittingly constructs a murky limbo between religion and science, physical and spiritual, institution and instinct, purity and corruption, fact and rumor, thought and action, public and private, comedy and tragedy, as well as heaven and hell. From people to places to events, everything about the film is obstinately ambiguous and invites a wide range of interpretations.

In the opening scene, teenage heroine Amalia (María Alché), her best friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) and other students attending a Catholic class are rapt by the hymn recital of their teacher Inés (Mía Maestro) as her devotion overwhelms her to the point of tears while pleading “What is it, Lord, you want of me?” Inés instructs her pupils that God gives each person a sign indicating his or her vocation. “He calls us to save and be saved.” When asked how one can recognize that sign, Inés impatiently retorts “You can’t confuse ugliness with beauty, horror with happiness.” We soon find Amalia standing in a crowd right across the street from the classroom and fully immersed in watching a theremin performance, while the ordinary looking middle-aged man behind her nonchalantly opens his jacket, tucks his hands inside his pant pockets and does a little frottage against her – the obscene touching is in curious contrast with the no-contact musical instrument. Answering what she naively assumes to be God’s call, impressionable Amalia makes it her mission to save the sinner Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso).

A convention for otolaryngologists is underway at Amalia’s family-run hotel, and Dr. Jano is one of the delegates in attendance. Amalia secretly confides in Josefina about her newfound vocation and begins stalking the doctor, even willfully positioning herself for more frottage when she again notices him in the street performer’s audience. But he is more interested in a possible fling with Amalia’s mother Helena (Mercedes Morán), a former diver with a slight hearing problem who vamps about all day like a socialite. He offers to diagnose Helena and indulges her acting bug by inviting her to star in the centerpiece skit at the conference. When Dr. Jano’s family later joins him at the resort, it’s inevitable that all hell will break loose.

Set in her native Salta of northern Argentina, both Martel’s feature debut La ciénaga (2001) and The Holy Girl revolve around Chekhovian rundown countryside estates and crumbling small communes as well as address the decadence of middle-class values. Her every detail seems to convey anxiety simmering just beneath the surface. The shallow depth of field – which she attributes to her myopia – creates an exquisitely textured vision as if capturing the humidity in the air. A palette of rusted brown and cool turquoise hues filters the view. Martel has said in an interview elsewhere that scenes to her are akin to memories. Habitually eschewing the establishing shot, she immediately thrusts viewers into the midst of a situation in which the location and the action sometimes remain hazy. She frequently allows reactionary shots to linger before revealing the action. Fragmented frames cut off faces or isolate random body parts to focus on microscopic gestures, expressions or details such as a sliver of shaving cream left on Dr. Jano’s neck. Viewers can’t get a sense of the spatial grounding – they may get the impression that the religious classes and the soundproof booth which doctors use to assess Helena’s hearing problem are somehow situated inside the resort. While her method is disorienting, it effectively weeds out the contextual trivia and heightens the emotional core of every scene.

Martel also achieves disorientation through thematic ambiguity. Through its complex characters and vaguely defined scenarios, the film juxtaposes contradictory concepts and ideas. Religion and science are yin and yang forces at work, with Inés and Dr, Jano respectively as their imperfect embodiment. Josefina blathers about Inés possibly having pre-marital relations, and Dr. Jano gives in to his primal instincts. Amalia mistakes the biological urge of raging hormones for divine calling. Even the sexual harassment/abuse that sets the plot in motion involves a conflicted predator and a willing prey.

The family hotel makes an intriguing setting, as public and private spaces are constantly converging and becoming interchangeable. Dr. Vesalio (Arturo Goetz) casually strips nude in front of temporary roommate Dr. Jano despite the fact that they hardly know each other. Amalia wanders into Dr. Jano’s room on another occasion rummaging around, rubbing his shaving cream onto her own collar and inhaling deeply as if in momentary ecstasy while a maid is right there busy at work. Intimate moments often meet with interruptions or reticence – such as phone calls from the wife of Helena’s ex-husband constantly disrupting the courtship between Dr. Jano and Helena, or the doctor reflexively withdrawing his hand when Amalia reaches for it inside a packed elevator. Personal lives become public spectacles as gossip travels, and a liaison results in the downfall of Dr. Vesalio and a young pharmaceutical lab representative. So it’s not surprising that Josefina eventually uses Dr. Jano’s interference with Amalia to deflect the attention of her mother (Mónica Villa), who has barged in and caught Josefina and her cousin Julián (Leandro Stivelman) sexually in flagrante.

Characters’ roles and relationships in the film are often deceptive. Devoted matron Mirta (Mirta Lubos) thanklessly slaves at the hotel, while proprietor Helena lounges about like a guest. Mirta meddles with Helena’s personal affairs as if she were her mother. Freddy (Alejandro Urdapilleta) at first seems like Helena’s old flame when he slinks into her room asking to spend the night, but it turns out that they are in fact siblings. Josefina mocks pre-marital sex, yet allows anal intercourse with Julián so long as he doesn’t talk during the act. What transpires between Amalia and Dr. Jano also isn’t clear. His behavior indicates a history of abuse, yet he promptly rejects her when she seeks more than just fondling.

While molestation is the most controversial topic at hand, the film doesn’t necessarily portray Amalia as a victim nor Dr. Jano as a monster. She masturbates in bed presumably thinking about him. His flirtation with Helena also further suggests that he may not be a child molester. “To be defined as a victim is the worst abuse a woman who has been abused can receive. That may seem a callous thing to say, because there are women and children who have suffered terrible abuses, but there’s something about the category of victim that takes away power,” Martel said in an Artforum interview. “One shouldn’t take power away from an individual with a word or a definition.” Viewers still won’t be able to get past the fact that Amalia is gullible and that Dr. Jano takes advantage of her, but at least his sympathetic portrayal encourages us not to quickly dismiss him.

Martel’s statement about the branding of victims actually hints at the moral of this tale. It is very much about victimhood, just that the scandal itself is the victimizer here. Rather than condemning molestation, she frowns upon the public’s eagerness to judge and denounce when nothing is in black and white and all is shades of grey. The relationship between Amalia and Dr. Jano poses the questions: Does desire equate to guilt, and does repression equate to innocence? Regardless of the answers, Amalia’s good intentions will ruin Dr. Jano’s reputation and Josefina’s phony concern for her will likewise lead to Amalia’s fall from grace all because bystanders are quick to judge. The film ultimately comments on the Catholic guilt complex, which aims to elevate human existence yet unwittingly causes ostracizing, hypocrisy and torment. Its emphasis on the lack of distinction in everything – especially between holiness and sin – underscores the unfairness of moral and behavioral standards that the church imposes. Reproduction is a primal instinct and sexuality can certainly be interpreted as part of God’s design, yet Catholicism has traditionally associated all but marital sex with guilt and shame.

The film’s depiction of religion and sexuality is reminiscent of Breaking the Waves in that sexual awakening can be a calling and faith can inspire vocation and sacrifice in a carnal fashion. But while a miracle transpires at the end of Lars von Trier’s allegory, Martel’s film resolves on a cynical and grim note. One definitive aspect of The Holy Girl is the brilliance of its ending, which traces the fuse burning all the way down without showing any explosive fireworks. As a witch hunt begins to spread like wild fire within its final minutes, the film leaves viewers with anticipation of the worst to come. If it weren’t for the queasy feeling we get from this, it wouldn’t have been apparent that Martel is actually taking a stand amidst all this perplexity. Yet she defies expectation by not showing the nasty confrontations and broken hearts. It simply halts while still in a blurry state of uncertainty.

Too much ambiguity is not necessarily a good thing. Minor details in the film could frustrate moviegoers even after repeat viewings. Some may not perceive much of the comedy despite the fact that parts of it are indeed hilarious – such as characters misinterpreting a naked man’s accidental fall onto the balcony as a miracle and confusing the sound of theremin with God’s beckoning, as well as Amalia’s classmate’s ad nauseam retelling of a story about a car going over a bridge. Casual moviegoers seeking entertainment will likely find it way too elusive, and it’s unfortunate that this thought-provoking commentary about the pitfalls of mass hysteria actually fails to speak to the masses.

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