Lucrecia Martel is one of the most distinctive auteurs to be associated with the “New Argentine Cinema”, an umbrella term used to describe the films of young directors who began to work in the aftermath of the financial meltdown of their country towards the end of the ’90s. In spite of Argentina’s economic difficulties, a generous system of state funding (fostered by the National Institute for Film Arts [INCAA] and often aided by North American and European money) has contributed to the sustained output of this new generation. Their films have garnered numerous nominations and prizes on the international festival circuit and received a considerable amount of critical attention. Martel, a key figure in this context, does not consider that this generation can be described as a “movement”, as they do not share a common programme or manifesto, and make films that are very different in terms of aesthetics, technique and themes (1). In tone and approach their work is a departure from the films of the previous generation, which much more directly and openly dealt with the damage inflicted by the military dictatorship that ruled the country until the mid-1980s. However, many of them, Martel included, working within an art house, low budget and experimental mold, focus on contemporary environments and milieus. Through their subtle portrayals of character psychology and relationships, they also provide a window on Argentine social mores and existential difficulties.
La Niña Santa (The Holy Girl) is the middle film in the Salta trilogy, preceded by La Cienaga (The Swamp, 2001) and followed by La Mujer sin Cabeza (The Headless Woman, 2008). Salta is the northern region of Argentina where Martel grew up – a Catholic, conservative area towards which Martel has conflicting feelings (2). Besides their location and use of female protagonists, these three films share a focus on a stagnant and ineffective middle class, elliptical and ambiguous narrative structure that does away with introductions and conclusions, recurrent symbolism, dense and suggestive soundtracks, a predominant use of a static camera, and very close and crowded compositions. Martel has said that the films are loosely autobiographical, or rather, “memory” films, in which she elaborates on aspects of her own childhood and adolescence growing up in similar environments. La Niña Santa is set in the Hotel Termas which she visited with her family as a child. Martel has also talked extensively about her lost Catholic faith and her problems with traditional family structures (3).
Martel’s work has been described as “minimalist”, a term often disappointing and lacklustre when applied to cinema. It certainly does not do justice to her complex characterisations, her use of dialogue and spaces, and her extraordinary sound design. In her films Martel explores the constraints and demands that religion, family and class impose on individuals, and the moral and ethical muddles that ensued. This materialises most clearly in her claustrophobic, disorientating, and layered mise en scène.
La Niña Santa is set in a large hotel where a convention of ear specialists is taking place. The hotel is owned by Helena (Mercedes Morán) and Freddy (Alejandro Urdapilleta), mother and uncle of the girl in the title, although it is the team of employees supervised by head housekeeper, Mirta (Marta Lubos), who make things function. The film begins with a group of school girls listening to their catechism teacher singing a religious song which contains the question that will drive part of the plot: “What is it, God, you want from me?” Amalia (María Alche), the teenage protagonist, and her friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg), try to make sense of the contradictory pleas in the lyrics: “Give me wealth or poverty, consolation or despair, heaven or hell”. The singer is overwhelmed by emotion, and cries. The girls are taken aback by her tears. An unclear and mysterious photograph is being circulated amongst the girls. There is whispered gossip about the teacher’s passionate kisses with a man other than her boyfriend. Muffled voices from the outside reach the room. This opening sequence introduces some of the film’s key themes: the potentially warped links between the spiritual and the physical, the ambiguous meanings of images, words and gestures, the adolescent negotiation of new bodily urges, and the concomitant confusion that arises – one that stays with many of the adult characters.
At the heart of the film is the portrayal of Amalia’s sexual awakening, juxtaposed not only with her intense Catholic indoctrination but also with a range of unorthodox sexual behaviours and encounters involving all of the main characters: Dr Jano (Carlos Belloso), the doctor who becomes the object of desire of both mother and daughter; Amalia’s best friend Josefina; Amalia’s mother and uncle; other doctors participating in the convention. Sexual tension abounds in the rarefied environment of the hotel; characters are often thrown into uncomfortable intimacy in the many bedrooms. Martel casts a critical eye on family and class relationships and there is plenty of simmering tension between parents, children, spouses, servants and hotel guests. Amalia eventually decides that her divine mission will be to “save” Dr Jano, but as the opening song suggests, the alternative – damnation – might be the outcome of her crusade.
The world of the senses – particularly hearing – is foregrounded in Martel’s film. This soundscape includes an astonishing array of noises, human voices (both on- and off-screen), and some music. The Theremin, an electronic instrument that is controlled by physical movement but isn’t touched, is part of a crucial scene and a suitable choice in a film where sound is both so important and so strange, intensifying mundane events such as waking up in bed. There even seem to be buzzing insects in most rooms. The spoken word is often misheard or misunderstood. Amalia’s mother suffers from tinnitus, an ear condition that produces buzzing in one’s ears; during a hearing test she mishears “beso” (I kiss) as “rezo” (I pray).
In spite of the claustrophobia and unease of The Holy Girl, there are frequent flashes of humour in the film. For example, there is a reversal of horror movie convention by having a ghost-like girl haunt the man: Dr Jano is scared of Amalia who slides behind curtains and enters rooms at night. Helena’s narcissistic dance in front of a mirror is interrupted by Mirta, who wants to pour vinegar on the kids’ heads to kill their lice. A naked young man falls off a window and stumbles into a family living room full of school children, interrupting their homework hour. A maid seems to be employed full time to spray the rooms with air freshener. Or is she killing flies? As with a lot in this film, it is open to interpretation.
- See Chris Wisniewski, “When Worlds Collide: An Interview with Lucrecia Martel”, Reverse Shot no. 25, 2009: http://www.reverseshot.com/article/interview_lucrecia_martel.
- See Demetrios Matheou’s interview with Martel in “Vanishing Point”, Sight and Sound vol. 20, no. 3, March 2010, pp. 28-32.
- See the quotations from Martel cited in Joanna Page, Crisis and Capitalism in Contemporary Argentine Films, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, p. 191; and also the DVD interview, “La familia es una enfermedad”.
La Niña Santa/The Holy Girl (2004 Argentina 106 mins)
Prod Co: Lita Stantic Producciones/La Pasionaria SRL/R & C Produzioni/El Deseo SA Prod: Lita Stantic Dir: Lucrecia Martel Scr: Lucrecia Martel, with contributions by Juan Carlos Domenech Phot: Felix Monti Ed: Santiago Ricci Art Dir: Graciela Oderigo Mus: Andres Gerszenzon
Cast: María Alche, Mercedes Morán, Carlos Belloso, Alejandro Urdapilleta, Julieta Zylberberg, Marta Lubos