Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Holy Girl

(Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2004)

My second experience with the cinema of Mz. Martel. Like The Headless Woman, it's a tremendously well-crafted work, with a visual and aural precision that is evident in every painstakingly-composed shot. This was a somewhat distracted screening for me, so a re-view will be necessary, but overall I'm very impressed. Once again, it seems that the heart of the film is miles away from the socio-religio-political dimension, and resides instead with the lives of the characters. Martel prefers to sketch these lives (inner and outer) obliquely, relying on nuances and just-captured flickers of behavior rather than conventional drama. This is the crux of her particular slant on minimalism - she is a filmmaker interested in borders -the borders of the frame, but also the borders of our lives, the secret things that exist in the periphery of consciousness.

It's fitting, then, that watching The Holy Girl feels exceptionally voyeuristic, like reading someone's diary, or, better yet, watching them on a hidden camera. The film abounds with secrets, from the banal to the brutal. It has two main focal points: the wonder and abandon of adolescence, as seen through Amalia's romantic and spiritual endeavors, and the crushing weight of middle age, exemplified by the hapless Dr. Jano. Looked at from youth, the secrets of the world are great and seductive, but to the older characters they are a burden and a curse. Martel manages to squeeze a lot from this dynamic, and there are some wonderfully incisive moments to show for it, even if they are tantalizingly brief.

Still, the overall effect of the film is underwhelming. The risk of such a detached style is a lack of emotional investment, which is often at odds with the basic melodrama that provides the film's skeleton. It's hard to fault Martel for being so visually sophistocated, but there are times when the design chafes against the content, and not in a productive way. The Holy Girl is a film that is content to exist in the elusive zone between mainstream and art cinema - it eschews the intimations of transcendence and the mythic proportions of other contemporary works of cinematic minimalism, such as the work of Pedro Costa and Lisandro Alonso (and for that matter, Apichatpong and the venerable master Hou Hsiao Hsien), but its modest aspirations feel strangely inadequate. Mostly realistic (with a few impish nods at surrealism), the film is not quite satire, and yet it isn't sincere enough to be melodrama. The aura of ambivalence is effective at creating uneasiness, but eventually this quality becomes irritating. I would never be one to say that emotional substance and serious ideas are mutually exclusive, but
The Holy Girl, for all of its subtlety, seems not to have enough of either.

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