As you may know, my cinematic pleasures have been a little limited of late. Seeing that I'm Xan's plaything these days, I've been limited to the crybaby screening offerings that the Majestic has been ponying up. Despite their finally getting up to date by screening The Longest Yard and Madagascar, I had read enough middling-to-bad reviews that I wasn't sure if I wanted to waste my money on either one. I decided to go food shopping instead (stocking up on frozen food at Trader Joe's, mmmm) and asked Angela if I could have a night out on my own to see a movie that would never have a crybaby screening and that I knew might only run for a week in DC. And while the hot art-film du jour is definitely Crash (which I would still love to see and am thoroughly pleased that it's getting some business), I knew that the one film in theaters now that I very desperately wanted to see was Lucretia Martel's The Holy Girl.
A bit of background as to why I was interested in this. Martel directed a fascinating debut called La ciénaga (The Swamp) a few years ago which I thankfully managed to catch at a SCMS Conference. That film alone brought her considerable notoriety among us Latin American film geeks. It was moody and slow but built with such fiery steam, I was really caught unawares. Her newest film -- which has gotten more press, perhaps because it was exec-produced by Pedro Almodóvar -- is very similar and had similarly chilling results for me.
One more thing: look at the poster for a moment. You'll notice the titular character (played by Maria Alche), while in close-up, is very much obscured. I'm reminded of the famous scene from Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, where an old woman goes to another room to answer the phone and we see her through the doorway to the other room -- except we only see her body because she is leaning beyond the frame of the door, obscuring her head and muffling her words. Apparently, many audience members in 1968 spontaneously craned their heads to try to see around the doorframe in this scene (forgetting, of course, that film is a two-dimensional medium, heh).
To a large extent, La niña santa is very much an entire movie of being forced to crane your head in the hopes of finding more. By simultaneously obscuring and emphasizing what she wants you to pay attention to, Martel demands your attention to the very details that build the story. The plot involves a mother and daughter who live in a hotel where a medical convention is taking place. The daughter, just awakening sexually, is also part of a charasmatic Catholic youth group trying to find her spiritual way in the world; when she is goosed in a crowd by a seemingly harmless man, she begins to obsessively pursue him, believing God has shown her a sign of sorts. (FYI: This is not in the same religious vein as von Trier's Breaking the Waves. If it reminds me of any other movie, it's Egoyan's Speaking Parts, but perhaps that is because both are set behind the scenes in hotels.)
All the characters, even the minor ones, have secrets that are being deliberately shielded from everyone else for a variety of reasons that we are slowly able to piece together. The film therefore may be very much a "slow burn," but one where mood and atmosphere intersect with the plot to build a crushing inevitability. At first, I had a little trouble figuring out what was going on before I decided to just let everything wash over me -- but by the end, I was shocked to find I was actually fearful with how events would end.
I won't give away how the movie ends, except to say that some people in the theater were really unhappy with it; I, however, found it to be exquisitely delicious and I left the theater almost giddy. I realize now that La niña santa is a fine example of simply good storytelling, if one realizes that not everything is action, that plot can occur as a tapestry. I happen to be reading Assia Djebar's A Sister to Sheherazade right now, which unspools its story in a similar manner. Two stories told by women. And, as I write this, I realize that several of the stories that I enjoy being told this way are in fact done by women: on film, for example, Sophia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, María Novaro's Danzón or my favorite segment from the omnibus film 11'09"01 directed by Iranian Samira Makhmalbaf; in fiction, I'm thinking of Toni Morrison's Jazz and Beloved, Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star and (in an odd, loopy way) Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. All good storytelling, but accompolished through layering (tightly weaving?) atmosphere and mood with each respective plot. I may have to dwell on this some more, but (in typing this out) I may have stumbled onto my own way of approaching "feminine writing" from a very positive spin. Hrm.