Following her acclaimed first film “La Cienaga,” Lucrecia Martel takes another ferocious look at an embroiled extended family in uncomfortable close-ups and claustrophobic settings in “The Holy Child.” A mystifying film that holds the audience in suspense over where it’s going and what it might mean for almost its entire running time, it does bring the narrative threads together in the end, but many viewers will still puzzle over its intentions. Auds who liked “La Cienaga” are likely to be repeat fans; others will be difficult to drum up.
This a style of filmmaking that makes precious few concessions to viewers, but those who stick through the difficult first hour will be rewarded with a thought-provoking pay-off.
Helena (Mercedes Moran), an attractive divorcee, lives in the hotel she and her brother Freddy (Alejandro Urdapilleta) own and manage, along with her barely pubescent daughter Amalia (Maria Alche) and staff. The old hotel, which is never seen from the outside and whose space is deliberately compressed, is a goldfish bowl from the fishes’ point of view. A swimming pool surrounded by concrete walls is, in fact, its most relaxing place.
A medical convention of eye, ear, nose and throat specialists brings the mousy Dr. Jano (Carlo Belloso) and his lusty colleagues to the hotel. In the sexy atmosphere of the convention, mature doctors chase after pretty “lab girls” and Dr. Jano allows himself a disastrous liberty: At an outdoor fair, he presses up against a young girl, who turns out to be Amalia. This small, ill-conceived gesture sets an entire drama in motion.
Amalia and her best friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) are torn between a poorly taught and digested religious education and their burgeoning sexual awareness. Amalia becomes fixated on the idea that it is her “vocation” to save Dr. Jano’s soul. He’s attracted to her mother, but holds back because of his own moral dilemma of being married and having a family. Gradually he finds himself caught in a web of desire and misunderstanding.
Though there’s much talk of salvation, this is not Flannery O’Connor territory, but rather a layman’s view of the way religious obsession can destroy a man’s life. The innocence and purity of choir girls is immediately exposed as a myth. Here, as in “La Cienaga,” the atmosphere is rife with all kinds of morbid sexual impulses from pedophilia to incest, constantly suggested by characters sharing beds and intimately touching each other.
Viewers struggling to find a connecting thread in the bits and pieces of Martel’s closely observed universe will find some respite in moments of gentle humor.
The medical convention is a straight-faced spoof in itself and Belloso’s dead-beat Dr. Jano a born victim of his little world. As Helena, Moran is a feminine businesswoman on the make, who provides a center of gravity for the hotel. The two girls, Alche and Zylberberg, are realistically but not very sympathetically portrayed as giggling, screaming and secret-hoarding adolescents.
Felix Monti’s probing camera keeps disturbingly close to the characters. It creates an overall sense of claustrophobia echoed in Graciela Oderigo’s sets. Santiago Ricci’s editing on motion gives the film a compelling, sometimes breathless rhythm.