PRINT April 2005


Establishing shots don’t work for me. When I think about a situation in a film, it’s like a memory, and I never remember it as an establishing shot. I immediately put myself in the middle.Lucrecia Martel

The first image in La Niña Santa, or The Holy Girl, the second feature film by Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, is of a bevy of adolescent girls crowded onto the screen, their faces so alive and so close to the camera lens that we want to touch the cheeks the film has proffered. The girls themselves are not complicit in this frustrated desire. They are entirely absorbed in listening to a hymn, sung offscreen by a young woman whom we’ve not yet seen. “What is it, Lord, your command to me?” she sings; and when we finally see her, she is in tears, overcome with the intensity of her devotion. One of the girls whispers to another that she saw the singer tongue-kissing her boyfriend. The recipient of this juicy piece of information is a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old of uncommon beauty who is dead center in the group and who, from the first, has most likely been the focus of our attention. She is the “holy girl” of the title, given name Amalia (María Alché), and the reason we are drawn to her has less to do with the ripe curves of her cheeks and lips than with the peculiar configuration of her eyes, which, Martel has remarked, are similar to those of saints and martyrs in religious paintings. The effect is that she seems to be casting her eyes to heaven even when she’s looking straight ahead. Amalia responds to her friend’s gossip with a startlingly lewd smile—the kind of smile that lifts one side of the mouth a second or two before the other. If the single raised eyebrow is a response to a mental construct (specifically, irony), the lopsided smile is expressive of an irony experienced in both the mind and the genitals (that sexual excitement is intensified by the strictures against it).

Martel may eschew establishing shots, but in a sequence of roughly five minutes she has mapped the film’s premise—the confusion of the sacred and the profane in erotic experience—onto the face of its heroine and also, more deftly than even Hitchcock (the definitive Catholic filmmaker) could have done, made us vicariously participate in the desire and guilt that a few scenes later set the narrative in motion. Like her immensely promising debut feature in 2001, La Ciénaga (The Swamp), The Holy Girl is the work of a filmmaker bent on remaking traditional cinematic language to reflect the interaction of the mind and the senses and to discover, amid the fragments and chaos of everyday life, if not evidence of the Divine Plan then at least the possibility of a perfect form. La Ciénaga was praised for the “tactility” of Martel’s mise-en-scène—a paradoxical accomplishment in a medium composed of visual and auditory elements whose rhythms and movements also produce kinesthetic sensation. But tactility, that most primal experience—how is it possible in film? In The Holy Girl, Martel sharpens the paradox by making the crux of her story an experience of touching and being touched. For Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), the man who gropes Amalia in the street, it is a furtive, guilty pleasure. For Amalia, the recipient of the touch, it is a sexual awakening, which she interprets as divine intervention.

The film is largely set in a rambling provincial hotel that has seen better days. Amalia lives there with her mother, Helena (Mercedes Morán), an attractive divorcée who owns and manages the place with her brother, also divorced. In Martel’s films, the family is anything but a safe haven. The hotel’s primary attraction is a large pool, and after school Amalia swims or hangs out with her classmates, while pondering their place in God’s design and how they will recognize his call should it come. Raging adolescent hormones cause the girls to fluctuate between sulkiness and hysteria. God is not their only obsession: Amalia’s friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) is having sex with her cousin—everything except vaginal penetration permitted. The hotel is hosting a convention of ear, nose, and throat doctors. One of them is Dr. Jano, who is having a flirtation with Helena although he’s expecting his wife and kids to join him before the week is out. Thus it is a bit of a shock to see him stride up behind Amalia, as she stands in a crowd of people listening to a man play a theremin (an instrument that makes sound without being touched), and press his groin against her back. Martel cuts away from Amalia once or twice to show us a clinical close-up of the place where the bodies meet, but mostly she holds on the girl as the realization of what is happening slowly dawns. A hint of sexual excitement crosses Amalia’s face at the same moment as it is, ever so briefly, illuminated by a ray of sunlight breaking though the clouds that otherwise shroud the film from beginning to end. The change in the light is so subtle that we could miss it entirely. Amalia, of course, does not, and she confounds her own sexual arousal with the sign that comes from above. She has been chosen to save this man by offering herself to him. Her “vocation” will upend his life, but who’s to say he’s not redeemed by being exposed?

With the help of a translator, I spoke with Martel in New York last October, when she was here to present The Holy Girl at the New York Film Festival. —AT

AMY TAUBIN: Did you have a Catholic girlhood?

LUCRECIA MARTEL: My family is from the province of Salta, in northern Argentina, near the Bolivian border. It’s the setting for both my films, La Ciénaga and The Holy Girl. It’s the most politically conservative, classist area of the country and has a large Catholic population. What’s attractive about the north is that it also has a strong aboriginal culture; it’s resistant to European influences. I grew up in a middle-class family. My father’s side is mostly atheist, my mother’s side religious—but not in an orthodox sense. During my adolescence, I joined a Catholic group because I wanted to participate in the culture that surrounded me. My involvement was very passionate, but it was also theologically compromised, so ultimately I was distanced from the group. It’s precisely an interest in theology that distances one from the church. But there’s something about adolescence—and maybe something about my friends in particular—that has to do with a type of secret. It’s not a secret in the sense of repression, but rather a secret that helps illuminate the person.

AT: Are you talking about religious mysticism?

LM: I think so. Mysticism in the West has, regrettably, been associated with laceration and self-flagellation, so it has lost the link to the divine—the aspect of it that can at moments be more anarchic and pantheistic. The direct link to God in mysticism is very powerful and destroys any religious institution. And that’s precisely the climate that surrounds the girls in the film, most of all Amalia.

AT: Why did you cast that particular actress?

LM: One of the interesting things about the casting of The Holy Girl was the realization that many actresses could play the character but that each of them would bring up a different story. At one point, I thought I didn’t want an actress as beautiful as María Alché. But there’s something fascinating about her gaze—a space between her pupil and her lower eyelid, as in religious paintings. It’s associated with adoration. You also see that type of look in nineteenth-century photographs of madwomen. And she was unusually strong physically—as swimmers tend to be—and that undercut the notion that this kind of young woman is frail and weak. But these are details; first and foremost I felt that María’s a really great actress. Now I’m friends with her, and I still have the sense that there’s a secret she hasn’t revealed—and that makes her very attractive as a person.

AT: One thing you didn’t mention is her mouth. She has an extraordinarily lewd-looking mouth. It’s the mouth of someone who is sexually knowing, in a face that otherwise suggests purity and innocence.

LM: I never thought that about María but rather about Carlos Belloso, the actor who plays Dr. Jano.

AT: Do you rehearse the actors in advance of shooting or just on set?

LM: I didn’t spend much time rehearsing in advance, more time just talking to the actors, getting to know about them, getting to know about their pudor—a difficult word to translate because it encompasses modesty, shyness, and shame. I feel very affected by this pudor, and I need the actors to know me as well so we can communicate. The most important thing for me is to have some sort of spiritual communion, if you will, with the actors. And also to have physical knowledge of them. I love to talk with actors about illnesses; that’s one of the best ways to get to know them profoundly.

AT: What about talking about sex?

LM: Not much. [Laughs.] There’s so much sensuality in all kinds of interactions in the film that I tried not to box off something as specifically sexual. It may be an issue of mine—not talking about sex—but ultimately I feel that the fact that the situation between Amalia and Dr. Jano isn’t clearly defined charges the entire film with a sexual tension.

AT: From Dr. Jano’s point of view, it’s clearly sexual: He’s trying to cop a feel. From her point of view, it’s not clear.

LM: I once had an experience similar to what happens to Amalia, and I actually did follow the man for a little bit because I was curious. And I’m certain he didn’t really know what he wanted. Technically, what he was looking for was probably concrete, but how that fit into what he was looking for in his life is more confusing. It seems to me that, for Amalia, it’s something tangible that happens, but it also sets in motion all kinds of fantasies and ideas, and, ultimately, one that is linked to the divine. Desire is such a physical thing, but in a mind like Amalia’s it also may seem like something supernatural. In the construction of the film, what interested me was precisely the impossibility of separating a corporeal experience—an experience of the senses—from an experience of the mind, from fantasy. Often one makes the separation through language, and that’s why the dialogue in the film is important—and why it fails over and over again. The dialogue reflects on the desire to separate what is, finally, inseparable. In the film medium, what’s most interesting is the contradiction between the physical world and how it is perceived on the one hand and the symbolic (primarily language) and the social order on the other. The law of the body and social law are two different things.

AT: Your films are composed largely of fragmentary images. It’s not that the shots themselves are short but that the framing is tight and often oddly angled. Do you do storyboards in planning out your films?

LM: My producer would love it if I did storyboards, but I never know how many shots I need in advance. We rehearse on the set with the actors, and during the rehearsal I discover what shots I want. I don’t film rapidly, and I don’t do a lot of takes. I don’t waste film. However, I think out the sound track well ahead of shooting—even before writing the script—and it gives me the grounding for the visuals. I try first to define the sonic atmosphere. I find the sound in most films disturbingly loud and disruptive. I hope the sound here works in a different way. Sound is what connects the film, the spectator, and the director.

AT: Could you talk about how you worked with the cinematographer?

LM: I worked with Félix Monti, who is regarded as the father of cinematographers in Argentina. I always framed the shot, and he was very respectful—he never tried to intervene in that. I didn’t want any stark contrasts of light on the faces, and that was one of the things we talked about. We were walking a fine line. I wasn’t interested in the Manichaean relation of good and evil but precisely in the place they become blurred.

AT: Both of your films remind me of Chekhov’s plays, partly because of the depiction of the crumbling economy of the middle class but also because the action is always deflected through the characters and is so fragmented.

LM: Thanks for the flattering comparison, but for me it’s organic. It goes back to what I was saying before. Because the theme is so tied to the mysterious, it’s hard to think of characters being propelled by action or having a direction. What we are speaking of is decadence, in the Argentine sense of it. I think of decadence as a positive value, especially if one thinks of the previous order as confining and exclusionary. The sooner the demise of the values that organize the world, the better. That’s what we’re living through in Argentina. It’s like the triumph of decadence and therefore an interesting period.

AT: What interests me in this film is that the adolescent girls have such agency. Amalia is in no way a victim.

LM: To be defined as a victim is the worst abuse a woman who has been abused can receive. That may seem a callous thing to say, because there are women and children who have suffered terrible abuses, but there’s something about the category of victim that takes away power. That’s why the relationship that the other young girl, Josefina [Amalia’s best friend], has with her cousin is so important. She wants the sexual relationship with him as well. As Spinoza says, one doesn’t know what the body is capable of, and it’s important not to forget that. One shouldn’t take power away from an individual with a word or a definition.

AT: Do you consider yourself a feminist?

LM: I’m reluctant to call myself a feminist, since I haven’t yet done the political work or the proper reflection and analysis of a feminist. But I’ve been profoundly transformed by the epistemological and phenomenological and political work that feminists have done.

AT: Are there filmmakers who’ve influenced you?

LM: I really haven’t seen that much cinema. The biggest influences on me are my mother and my grandmother and their way of constructing stories. My grandmother, who has passed away, told stories by a popular Argentine fiction writer, Horacio Quiroga, but she told them as if she’d lived them herself. It wasn’t until I read them later in school that I realized they were his stories. They often take place in semirural areas, and they’re full of animals and madness. In the stories, death was violent, but it didn’t seem final. And also through my mother and my grandmother I was lucky to experience the custom called “going to pay a visit.” My grandmother often brought me along to visit women who were ill, but their condition wasn’t known or discussed openly. So narratively speaking, these visits have been enormously influential on my films—in the indirection of the gaze and the way of speaking around what is happening.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight and Sound.