At a weathered hotel in the city of La Ciénega, a group of physicians are gathering for a conference. Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso) is a conservative and fairly shy sort, but commands the respect of his colleagues. Elsewhere, teenage Amalia (Maria Alché), the daughter of the hotel's divorcée owner, and her friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) playfully explore the innocent temptations of adolescence while also wrestling with matters of religion and morality as discussed in their post-choir rehearsal gatherings. The inevitable friction between the life that Jano and Amalia are each expected to live and the life that they are leaning toward ignites a growing and inextinguishable flame after a chance encounter between them -- a fleetingly brief but erotically-charged touch while crowded into a group of onlookers watching a street performance.
What lasted only a fraction of a second ends up having lingering consequences that will forever change both Dr. Jano and Amalia, even impacting, in some rather dire ways, their relationships with others. Throughout this easily sensationalized process, however, Martel never opts to exploit the obvious. There is no demeaning of religion nor vaunting of eroticism here, such as one often finds in American and European films that have attempted to address similar issues. What Martel is after is more interior, more psychological, relying on her actors' faces rather than dialogue to unveil their souls and offer insight into the ways in which human beings resolve their innermost conflicts.
It's unusual for a filmmaker to take such a nonjudgmental approach, though Martel's documentary experience is clearly a factor. Her strikingly neo-realistic style creates a near-voyeuristic feeling on the part of the viewer and augments the authenticity of the characters' emotions.
Executive produced by Pedro Almodovar and his brother, Agustin, "The Holy Girl" heralds not only the coming of an enormously talented new filmmaker, but a veritable international star in young Maria Alché. Graced with a hypnotic, mournful beauty and eyes that convey more than words possibly could, she is the film's most magnetic asset.
Even seasoned art-house audiences, however, should not carry any grandiose expectations into the theater with them -- "The Holy Girl" owes less to present-day European or Argentine filmmaking than it does to the classic work of Robert Bresson, Vittorio de Sica or Satyajit Ray. It's the in-between moments, the off-hand remarks, the sideward glances and the otherwise negligible details with which she has constructed this deceptively simple tale. There is nothing grandiose or overtly rapturous about "The Holy Girl" until it has finished spinning its tale in total. And that's a process that takes time and a certain degree of patience. But the result more than justifies the effort. Starring Mercedes Moran, Carlos Belloso, Alejandro Urdapilleta, Maria Alche and Julieta Zylberberg. Directed and written by Lucrecia Martel. Produced by Lita Stantic. A Fine Line release. Drama. Spanish-language; subtitled. Rated R for some sexual content and brief nudity. Running time: 104 min