'The Holy Girl': A Story That's Open to Interpretation

Amalia (Maria Alche, right) silently communicates with Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg).
Amalia (Maria Alche, right) silently communicates with Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg). (New Line Productions)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 27, 2005

"The Holy Girl" is a kind of rigorous meditation on the most banal of human interactions: It chronicles, in a dozen variants, the disconnect between what is said and what is heard.

The movie, in other words, is a farrago of missed communications, sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, always dispiriting. Is that the voice of God or random noise? Is that a sexual entreaty or a deviant's touch? Is that the possibility of a relationship or random eye contact? More disconcerting still, the miscommunications are just as likely to be subverbal: the disconnect between what is expressed and what is interpreted. We're left with an image of man as the message-missing animal.

The Argentine writer-director Lucrecia Martel sets her film in a run-down Buenos Aires hotel, where a group of doctors specializing in hearing dysfunction (!) have gathered for a "congress" (a word that can mean "social interaction" and "sexual intercourse" as well as a meeting, and all of those possibilities are explored). There, the doctors -- a motley, horny lot, as it turns out -- interact with another motley, horny lot, the family that owns and runs the hotel. (Martel seems to view "hotel people" as a special breed, somewhat like "circus people" or "carny trash"; it's very strange.)

Anyhow, as soon as all are assembled the miscommunications begin in earnest, and the most disastrous of them is the thing that happens -- or doesn't happen -- between a kind of medical icicle named Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso) and the teenage daughter of the hotel's divorced co-owner, Amalia (Maria Alche). It seems that the doctor has a condition -- you'd never guess it from his prim, professional behavior -- known as uncontrollable sexual impulse and Amalia also has a condition, which is known as "being a teenager." It doesn't help her that she's undergoing a kind of hysterical religious indoctrination in which just about anything can be construed as a message from God, so she's walking about in a highly receptive mood, eager to misinterpret.

Thus, when she is standing in a crowd, listening to undecipherable almost-music from a theremin, he walks up behind her (he doesn't know who she is) and does a brief, inappropriate touching ritual, very, very wrong. She of course thinks this means he's in love with her.

Thus the victim becomes the stalker and the pervert becomes the prey!

It goes on, getting ever more complicated, sometimes in a tone of bleak, black humor. Even as poor Amalia, a somewhat doughy girl with dead eyes, pursues her inamorato (some reviewers seem to think she wants to save his soul; I think that she wants to make out with him or that she thinks they amount to the same thing!) her mother, earthy divorcee Helena (Mercedes Moran, a Melina Mercouri look-alike), has also decreed the doctor to be quarry, as he wears no wedding ring. That's because the doctor, as well as being a distinguished man of science and medicine, is also a sex monkey on the prowl; he's taken his ring off.

So for a while Martel plays a farce game: Helena tries to draw the doctor in, but when he sees her daughter and finally figures out whom it was that he, um, groped, he flees. He runs from the both of them only to meet something far worse: love-struck Amalia alone. The narrative mechanism of the film is a kind of a weird rhythm of push-pull, yank the poor doc this way and that. He's like a pinball ricocheting around. What's a pervert to do! I guess you're not supposed to laugh but it is pretty damn funny.

Round and round it goes, getting more complicated, more confusing, more astringent. I should say that only parts of "The Holy Girl" play as black comedy. Sometimes the results are tragic, as they seem to add up to something Dr. Jano didn't count on and hoped to avoid. But the movie isn't really a moral parable about God's punishment for bad decisions.

More, it's a document that suggests that the road to hell is paved with bad communication skills.

The Holy Girl (106 minutes, at Landmark's E Street) is rated R for sexual content and brief nudity.

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