Friday, May 20, 2005

the holy girl

I've noticed that movie audiences in New York, at least for the smaller movies, are quite vocal in expressing their dissatisfaction at anything in particular. They will talk during the previews, remain relatively quiet during the actual movie, and deliver verdicts as soon as the first credit rolls on the screen. Last night, I watched Lucrecia Martel's La NiƱa Santa (The Holy Girl). I sat down to immediately hear German-accented tones of disgruntlement and then movement to the right, behind me. I am, as you all well know, a gargantuan giantess and in all east Asian countries, banned from sitting in front rows. Don't Germanically gruntle at me! I'm incapable of, how do they say, obstructing your old lady view!

The movie was sort of like when you take shots of tequila and you're feeling fine and then you're feelin' whatever resembling sober and then it starts hitting you, like it has its own time frame and it's not paying any attention to yours. Because while I enjoyed watching the movie itself, following the events unfold, the weaving of threads, I didn't quite appreciate it all until a couple hours later. More than not, I was left taken aback at the abrupt ending (which prompted a "What, are you kidding me?!" response from grumpy old man in back row).

The Holy Girl is about an adolescent girl Amalia on the cusp of discovering and exploring an entire range of things, as most do whilst growing up, namely sexuality and purpose in life, in this case "vocation." She and her best friend Josefina study along with a group of girls about vocation listening for the "call from God" with an instructor who clearly doesn't have a handle on her students' young-wise questions, doubts, and arguments ("If I heard a voice telling me to kill somebody like God told Abraham, I would think it was the Devil."), responding ineffectually with simple declaratives that start with "We must..."

Amalia and her lonely mother and mother's brother live in a hotel which is hosting a conference for ENT doctors. One of the doctors rubs up against Amalia, not knowing who she is, while watching a street performer playing the theremin. Martel covers a rather breathtaking amount of material in such a low-key, invisible hand way, that it's really not apparent from the start, how many things are going on, consciously constructed by her. She manages to give a depth of story and character not just to everybody from Amalia, the doctor, the mother, the uncle, and Josefina but even the smaller roles like the religious instructor, Josefina's family, the hotel workers are given an entirety with just a few words, just a few gestures, just a few notes. She shows glimpses of a wry humor in the everyday actions of the hotelworkers, the no nonsense responses of the characters and takes the time to spend this wonderful little scene where Amalia's mother is dancing by herself, kind of slow, sensual, by oneself deal, being watched by two little kids. One little boy is sort of entranced. And the other is a little girl, also enthralled but paying attention and trying to dance herself. A near ineffectual echo that will grow up, no doubt, to resemble more that grown woman, when she reaps more years.

What I liked most about the movie was the use of sounds and images, how they resound sometimes alone and sometimes play off each other. It really made me think of echoes, how eerie they can be, how they occur when one is isolated, how they can inform and deceive by their quality because they are reflections. Most of the characters exist, wrapped up in their own little worlds, and either don't listen or can't hear.

A.O. Scott's review describes it well: "The intense, unexpressed emotions that percolate through Ms. Martel's story of innocence and desire are conveyed, more than in most films, through sounds -- whispered and half-overhead conversations, the murmurings of water in old pipes, the strange auditory signals that float in from the edges of perception. Her visual style is similarly oblique, as she frames her characters through half-opened doors, at odd angles and in asymmetrical close-ups. To a degree that is sometimes disorienting, Ms. Martel explores the mysteries of the senses. They are our instruments for knowing ourselves, each other and the world, but they also mislead us, bringing pain, pleasure and confusion in equal measure."

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