This Argentinian drama made Judge Joel Pearce shake and cough just like the old man in that book by Nabokov.
She is both temptation and salvation.
Its tagline might be the least accurate in the history of film: The Holy Girl is completely devoid of salvation. There is temptation, yes, as well as religious obsession and Theremin music. It's all unsatisfying, though. This is one of those films that could—and should—be great, but never brings its ideas together.
Facts of the Case
A week-long medical convention is being held in an Argentinian hotel well past its prime. Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso) is one of the speakers at the convention. He is married, but is instantly attracted to Helena (Mercedes Morán, The Motorcycle Diaries), single mother and co-owner of the hotel. She is drawn to him as well, and doesn't much care that he is married, though they both carefully avoid drawing the attention of the hotel's other guests.
Amalia (María Alche) is Helena's teenage daughter. She takes local religious classes, and is starting to explore both her faith and her budding sexuality. She spends much of her time with Josephina (Julieta Zylberberg), who shares her curiosity and idealism. When Dr. Jano makes an anonymous sexual advance towards Amalia in public, not realizing who she is, it sets in motion a chain of events that will have serious consequences for all of the characters.
In The Holy Girl, we see everything from the perspective of a voyeur, peeking into the lives of the characters with a relentlessly static camera. It's a very uncomfortable film to watch. Although many of the shots are unconventional, obscuring characters, there is a haunting beauty about it. The slow pace forces us to watch details closely, to explore the expressions on the characters' faces. This camera work was a good choice considering how private the film is: We are witnesses to the characters' truest, most secret moments, even though those moments are never explained to us.
Some of the ideas and scenes in The Holy Girl are frustratingly ambiguous. I don't understand the purpose of Amilia and Josephina's training. What I do know is that intense teaching in religion without any time spent on learning how to exercise good judgment is a dangerous thing. These girls have grown up listening to fantastic stories about saints who made incredible sacrifices, and now Amalia starts confusing her newfound sexual feelings with a call from God. Or does she? The conversations between the two girls are so full of sex and scandal that it's difficult to see her simply as a confused youngster. The truth remains clouded thanks to a nuanced and intriguing performance from María Alche. She is always convincing, even at the film's strangest moments. Amalia is a difficult girl to like and relate to, but you can't take your eyes off of her.
Few of the other characters earn much of our sympathy, either. Although it's unclear what Dr. Jano's intentions are, rubbing up against teenage girls in public is an uncool thing to do, especially if you hold a position of authority as doctors do. He may not fit the standard stereotype of a movie villain, but nothing he does in this film is respectful or flattering. As with Amalia, we never know why he makes the choices he does, but I'm not sure it's important. What is important is that Carlos Belloso's performance is excellent, as are those of the supporting actors.
There are a number of things in The Holy Girl that left me baffled. What's going on with the Theremin? Is it meant to represent the artificiality of the relationships between the characters? Is it meant to be a novelty that draws the attention of the crowds even though it's not that spectacular? Did director Lucrecia Martel just like the sound? Another baffling sequence has Amalia and Josephina taking a road trip and encountering hunters in the woods. It's a well-shot, attractive sequence, but it only muddles the already ambiguous storyline.
I found the end of The Holy Girl frustrating. The whole film builds slowly towards the consequences for the actions the characters have made. Each sequence is long and difficult to watch, but with such fascinating characters I was willing to make it through to find out what would happen between them. For Martel to make us wait so long, then end the film just before the stories finally come together is an unforgivable sin. Maybe it's just my apathy towards impenetrable art film styling, but the way the characters would behave once forced to answer for their choices was a scene I didn't want to miss.
The disc is well produced, a far better effort than I have usually seen for South American films. The image is sharp and clean, with a rich use of the neutral color scheme. There is a natural looking grain, but no visible compression flaws or digital errors. The sound is also great, with good stereo separation and plenty of details that stand out. If the film had been produced with a full Dolby 5.1 track, it would have been even better. The only extra on the disc is a production featurette. In this case, that means a lot of footage of Martel looking through cameras on set, then talking about why her production is so incredible. I have to admit, I'm still not convinced.
Your feelings about The Holy Girl will depend on your overall attitude toward European art cinema. Martel has created a challenging and unique vision of the world, but one that will not appeal to many viewers, especially after an hour or so. It's a film to be admired more than enjoyed, and I think it could have accomplished so much more than it did. Keep an eye out for María Alche, though, who will probably have some impressive performances in her future.
The Holy Girl isn't guilty, but it's a long way from being sacred.
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Scales of Justice
• Production Featurette
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