The Holy Girl

Director: Lucrecia Martel

Mexico| 2004. English subtitles. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 105 min.

The combination of Catholic anxiety and female sexual awakening is hardly a novel one in auteur cinema, but it receives an idiosyncratically oblique treatment in The Holy Girl. Director-writer Lucrecia Martel made her name with debut The Swamp (La Cienaga), which marked her out as a central figure of the new Argentine cinema, and this eagerly awaited follow-up more than confirms its promise.
As in Martel’s previous film, the setting is the town of La Cienaga, where teenager Amalia (Maria Alche) lives with her glamorous mother Helena (Mercedes Moran), who runs a large crumbling spa hotel and convention centre. Currently visiting is a delegation of medics, including unprepossessing middle-aged Dr Jano (Carlos Belloso), for whom Helena has a growing yen. Standing behind Amalia one day in a crowd, Jano rubs himself sexually against the girl, then is alarmed to find he has started more than he intended. Meanwhile, the developing sexuality of Amalia and best friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) is in conflict with the religious aspirations instilled in them at school by devout teacher Ines (Mia Maestro).
At once an understated psychodrama and a wonderfully excruciating comedy of misunderstanding, The Holy Girl finally evades categorisation since Martel’s approach is so slippery. Occasionally, Martel will pull a bizarre dramatic coup, all the more striking for being initially inexplicable. A sudden crash is heard at Josefina’s apartment, and a few moments later a naked man walks in: we have to wait a while to be told, perfectly casually, that he has fallen from two floors up, and that his survival appears to be one of those miracles the girls discuss in theology class. Even absorbed viewers may leave the film wondering what it is finally about, but that only proves The Holy Girl is one for repeated viewings.

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