The Holy Girl

May, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Lucrecia Martel

Starring:Mercedes Morán, Carlos Belloso, Alejandro Urdapilleta, and María Alche

The Holy Girl

Nabakov, adolescent religious fervor and the dangers of suppressed sexuality in the Roman Catholic Church are joined in unholy alliance by this lavishly praised but rather torpid examination of the coming of age of a 16 year old in Argentine director Lucrecia Martel's latest. A big hit with the international film festival crowd, "Holy Girl" succeeds in creating a moody atmosphere of fetid sexual release that rises from its principal characters like ripened mushrooms sprung from dank, fertile soil. The net result makes the film seem far longer than its 106 minute running time, so great patience is needed here--along with the ability to swallow the writer/director's debatable understanding of Catholicism's notion of "vocation" as it's applied to burgeoning adolescent sexual awareness.

A physician's conference taking place in a fading Argentine hotel brings Dr. Jano in contact, (at first socially and then literally) with Amalia, the 16-yr old daughter of Helena, the hotel's manger. On an excursion to the town plaza, Jano spots the teenager in a crowd and positioning himself behind her, enjoys a furtive rub against her posterior. She's startled and immediately confused by her reactions; having gotten when he wanted, Jano quickly disappears into the crowd. When he later repeats this assault under similar circumstances, Amalia startles him by reaching approvingly for his hand. But its fantasy he wants, not real human contact.

Helena, divorced from a husband who still has the power to ruffle her composure, also encounters Jano, but under more conventional circumstances.  They're introduced at the opening reception of the conference, both ignorant of course, of his brief intimacy her daughter. His quiet thoughtfulness and interest in an auditory problem which Helena suffers leads her to believe he's romantically interested in her and she coquettishly seeks ways to lead him on, despite the fact that his wife and children will arrive for a few days of vacation at the end of the meeting. Jano's not a monster; despite his totally inappropriate behavior, he's a deeply conflicted man who recognizes and deplores his obsessive behavior even as he indulges in it. But is his subsequent rejection of Amalia's conflicted advances morally grounded or simply the desire of a highly regarded professional seeking to avoid exposure as a loathsome pervert? Audiences must judge for themselves.  

The languidly sensual Helena, readily available and stunningly attractive, ought to be the perfect focus for any mature gentleman's age-appropriate desire for dalliance, but Jano's desires, furtively juvenile, remain focused on Amalia. The script suggests that she confuses her reaction to his behavior with what her religious instructor defines as the need to discover her vocation. The Church says that God has a specific life plan for her; could it be she been chosen to redeem this shy physician with his offensive sexual appetites? She confides as much to Josefina, her sexually active friend whose interrupted tryst with a boyfriend sets in motion the inevitable connections between mother, daughter and doctor, now terrified that his impulsive actions and Amalia's curious response have set in motion a chain of circumstances he no longer has the ability to control.

Martel presents all this longing in suitably fervid style; female sexual desires--Helena's and Josefina's signaled in scenes that leave no doubt about their appetites, Amalia's the picture of conflicting urges--methodically build towards disaster, which the director enhances by avoiding a conventional resolution of the plot. But her protracted efforts to attribute Amalia's physical longings to her spiritual quest teeter on the brink of the ridiculous; there may be temptation here, but it has nothing whatsoever to do the youngster's search for personal religious destiny. Artistic swipes at the Church's often morbid focus on human sexuality are certainly appropriate, but they have to grow out of more credible circumstances than those imposed by this storyline. If Martel is trying to covertly preach here, she's succeeded in delivering a truly bogus sermon.

With its laborious pacing, dubious point of view on the connection between religious faith and sexual expression and an especially tortured introduction of its various characters, "Holy Girl" takes more patience to sit through than most movie goers will be willing to invest. 

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