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Pooling Their Resources: María Alche (left) and Julie Zylberberg take a dip in 'The Holy Girl.'

Love That Dirty Water

Lucrecia Martel's 'The Holy Girl' delves into the murky waters of Argentine life

By Richard von Busack

A LOTUS FLOWER rising out of a swamp is a sacred image for Buddhists: the fragrant soul escaping the stinking human. But the flower and the swamp could also be the emblem of the films of Lucrecia Martel, a greatly talented Argentine filmmaker.

Her newest film, The Holy Girl (which turned up at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival), is Martel's first film to receive local release. It is easy to see why, since The Holy Girl is a more essentially optimistic picture than her earlier feature La Ciénaga (2001).

The Holy Girl boasts an almost comic premise, yet it is very serious in intent and design. The close-set, septic atmosphere that Martel creates is usually only used as the basis for horror, not for realism. Martel takes us to an Argentine town she calls La Cienaga. The Hotel Termas used to be a nicer place; today, it's shoddy and overcrowded. The guests there catch head lice and fevers. And a maid wanders the lobby, spraying the walls with DDT.

An underage girl named Amalia (María Alche) lives here, the daughter of the hotel's owner. One afternoon, she is interfered with by an older man. He rubs against her as they both stand in a crowd listening to a theremin being demonstrated outside a music store.

This frottage—and the music—stirs the girl's first lust. She mistakes it for the call of Jesus. Afterward, she keeps trying to corner the molester, Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), a meek, married doctor attending a medical convention. By the time Amalia tracks the doctor down, he has already befriended Helena (Mercedes Morán), not knowing she's Amalia's mother.

It is easy to understand the pervy doctor's mistake. In Martel's movies, the characters are never properly introduced. The director is deliberately vague about telling you who is whom. She makes matters more confusing by crowding her screen with a mob of people. Perversely, she will place main characters at the edge of her frames.

Some will call Martel's work tantalizing; others might justly call her films cryptic. Her films, with their mysterious ellipses and omissions, are stories of a country gone to seed. Her view of Argentina is of a country imploding because of sloth, privilege and unashamed racism against Indians. "The Indians live on top of each other," says an urchin in La Ciénaga. It's an inside joke, since it's the white people in Martel's films who live on top of each other.

The men are mostly lazy machos, who recline, looking sated and overfed, like the lions in the zoo. They like to shoot at birds. Villagers blasting at ducks are part of the chaos in Martel's 1995 short film Rey Muerto, an extra on the DVD of La Ciénaga (Home Video Entertainment). Throughout La Ciénaga, we hear the guns of fowlers in the hills, and three young girls on a hike stumble into a party of bird hunters in The Holy Girl.

Men killing birds—the symbolism sounds lamely melodramatic. But the women in Martel's films aren't little wounded birds. Alche in The Holy Girl certainly hasn't been cast to illustrate the frailty of women. She is a glowering stolid teen, with a high large forehead and a mouth as tough and thick-lipped as Lee Marvin's. But even the more birdlike neurotic women in Martel's two films are on a sort of lie-down strike. They're heavy, sleepy, lolling in group siestas that look more decadent than the average orgy.

It is said that in art, water represents the female principle: pliability that disguises strength, strength enough to wear out the hardest stones. But Martel's use of water is nothing but creepy. La Ciénaga means "The Swamp"; the title refers to the fetid swimming pool that's the gathering spot for a hard-drinking family, laid out like the corpses in an open-air morgue.

Martel's movies are fascinating in ways a similarly fungusoid filmmaker like Harmony Korine isn't. Maybe it is because she is not depressed. She takes a shine to these devolving humans; they don't gross her out, but she is scandalized. Martel is amazed by children—their destructive, unwashed vitality.

Her films aren't prudish, either. Actually, there's quite a hot masturbation scene in The Holy Girl, which is loaded up with all the sexual tension that shame can give. Still, Martel is no ordinary sensualist. All the skin she shows us is ruddy and waxy. She comes from a Catholic background, and she distrusts the flesh.

At the beginning of The Holy Girl, Amalia is taking catechism, listening to a hymn of abasement, the singer casting vileness on herself, compared to the purity of her Lord. In La Ciénaga, a brother insinuatingly croons the word "sucio" (dirty) at his sister: he pesters her while she Noxzemas her bare shoulders. The point is, the sister is truly dirty. She hasn't bathed in days, except to dip into that gray-water recycling dump of a family swimming pool.

The Holy Girl ends where La Ciénaga begins, with a swimming pool scene. The Hotel Termas' pool is slightly more appealing than La Ciénaga's central vat of polio soup, though it's still indifferently clean. The scene is a kind of baptism. Amalia has managed to covert her sinful best friend, Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg). Amalia really is a holy girl. The question is, how does that holiness manifest itself? In loving a stranger like Dr. Jano, or in overcoming her feeling of revulsion, to try to save his soul?

Martel's work is so distinctive that there has been really nothing like it since a pair of hugely talented New Zealand female filmmakers emerged at the turn of the 1990s. What comes to mind watching Martel isn't other Latin American filmmakers but rather Jane Campion and Alison Maclean, in particular Campion's Sweetie (1989) and Maclean's Crush (1992). The hulking big sister Sweetie, rebelling against her family by going feral, becoming a mud-woman, recalls the way the muddy layabout kids look in La Ciénaga.

The potential link between the Argentine Martel and the Zealander Maclean is even stronger in Maclean's phenomenal debut short, Kitchen Sink (1989), in which the drain of a backed-up kitchen sink, clogged with a hair ball, gives birth to the man of a woman's dreams. Maclean's Crush—just rereleased on DVD in a "director-approved" edition—would make a terrific double bill with La Ciénaga.

Crush is a chilly, funny polysexual film noir, featuring Marcia Gay Harden in her best performance ever as a stranded American tourist wreaking emotional havoc among a Kiwi family. There isn't any ponded dirty water. However there is a sequence at some boiling mud pits at the local geyser. Close enough.

These three filmmakers undermine machismo in societies that still have a frontier quality to them. The women these three directors show us are like rosebuds from which an earwig suddenly emerges.

The Holy Girl (R; 106 min.), directed and written by Lucrecia Martel, photographed by Félix Monti and starring María Alche and Carlos Belloso, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the May 11-17, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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