In the 1960s and 70s a revolution took place not only in the teaching of history but also the understanding of history. Historians argued that, instead of being seen as a succession of battles, beheadings, royals and revolutions, history could also be examined through the lens of sociology, linguistics and cultural theory. This shift of emphasis away from political elites and towards normal people allowed social historians to consider the role played in the development of society and culture by groups that had previously been invisible to historians. Groups who were kept out of mainstream politics but who nevertheless had an impact upon society because they were a part of that society. This not only opened up whole new areas of historical research, it also shed new light upon some old problems. Problems such as determining who had power and why decisions were made.
Social history’s new perspectives on old problems lead to what may be referred to as a semantic thickening of traditional political concepts such as ‘authority’ and ‘power’ as, for example, a queen may be seen as powerless if one measures power in terms of constitutional legitimacy and military might but extremely powerful if it is revealed that her husband runs all of his ideas past her before discussing them with his ministers. This semantic tension between different forms of political power is one that is central to the work of the Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel. In her 2008 film La Mujer Sin Cabeza (The Headless Woman), Martel showed how a middle class woman can be robbed of all power and agency by male relatives acting in what they perceive to be accordance with her wishes and interests. Martel’s previous film La Nina Santa (The Holy Girl) considers the same set of intra-sexual conflicts but in a much more oblique fashion. In fact, if La Nina Santa presents the battle of the sexes as a competition for the soul of an old building.
The building that serves as a setting for the film is a beautifully old-fashioned affair. A building full of old rooms, old members of staff, old pieces of technology and an old swimming pool. Ostensibly, the building is a flea-bitten hotel run by Helena (Mercedes Moran) and her family including her sexless brother Freddy (Alejandro Urdapilleta), her saintly daughter Amalia (Maria Alche) and the embittered maternal presence of Mirta (Marta Lubos). With Helena as manager and her – largely female – friends and family keeping the place ticking over, the Hotel is an intensely feminine structure; Its kitchen is a place where women discuss their problems with men, its bedrooms are places where women lie huddled together drawing strength from sexless intimacy and its corridors and window-ledges are spaces in which teenaged girls discuss their religious calling and taxing theological issues. It is a hotel, but it is also a community. A community dominated by women.
However, into this gynocratic paradise comes a large group of men. Doctors from all over the country who have converged on the hotel for a conference. These men bring with them the suggestion that the hotel might in fact be some kind of hospital or medical facility. Indeed, the arrival of the doctors has obliged the hotel to take on new members of staff such as masseuses and chamber maids who spend most of their time letting themselves into rooms and spraying disinfectant and bug-spray all over the place as though they were combatting the spread of MRSA or C. Difficile. It is no accident that the film’s opening scene has Freddy taking the introverted Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso) and the extroverted Dr. Vesalio (Arturo Goetz) to their room with the announcement that it is ‘their’ corridor. Even the private spaces of the family seem to be under threat as Helena’s attempt to go swimming in her own pool is met by the discovery that the entire area is filled by doctors having meetings. She is no longer at home. In fact, the family seem to have been forced back into sharing one small room and one small bed in which they huddle together for comfort as though seeking protection from some terrible changing storm. This gradual medicalisation of the hotel seems somehow perfectly suited to its architecture of small rooms, fading paintwork, vast kitchens, bustling hallways and outdated technologies. It is almost as though the building itself is in a state of flux, shifting between hospital and hotel in accordance with the beliefs and perceptions of its inhabitants. Perceptions which, initially at least, split along quite neat gender lines.
The doctors arrive at the hotel with the mindset of single men on holiday. They drink, they shout, they laugh, they swagger about the place, they flirt with the staff and they generally chase anything in a skirt having banished from their minds the idea that they might be married or that some of the women they are chasing are barely above the age of consent. This mindset is exquisitely conveyed by the first of a series of scenes in which Dr. Jano rubs himself up against Amalia in a crowd. Initially, the young girl is puzzled – shocked even – by the doctor’s crude attempt at seduction but Jano’s brazen sexuality creates a tension within Amalia. A tension between two visions of the world.
For the inhabitants of the hotel, the world is one dominated by rules: Moral rules and social rules. In the case of Amalia, these rules are religious in character as every day is devoted either to the study of impenetrable works of moral theology or to the careful examination of each others’ relationships and behaviour. Indeed, when one student gets above herself and chides another student for her inattention to a reading, one of Amalia’s friends whispers that the student probably has a boyfriend and that she has probably had ‘premarital relations’, thereby making her opinions on the divine uninteresting and her friendship not worth pursuing.
The same obsession with morality governs the lives of the older women of the hotel, but they frame their moral quandaries in terms more psychological than overtly religious. Indeed, when it is discovered that Helena’s ex-husband is due to have children with his new wife, Helena refuses to speak to the wife on the grounds that she did not hear of the pregnancy directly from her. As with the schoolgirls, a transgression of the moral law makes you a non-person.
The fact that the male worldview is dominated by sex and the female worldview is dominated by morality and social contracts might well suggest that the battle of the sexes is a moral or holy one but the film’s perspective is much more subtle and humanistic than might be suggested by adherence to such a crude dichotomy. Indeed, for while Martel does suggest a conflict between the sexual life and the moral life (however one defines it), she also seems to be suggesting that this tension is natural and something that will resolve itself one way or the other according to people’s choices and characters. For Martel, problems arrise not from a failure to be holy, but rather from a failure to make a positive decision and reach the right conclusion for the right reasons. This struggle to find the ‘right’ way to surrender to temptation is what gives The Holy Girl its dramatic energy and its human element.
The struggle is played out around the rather oily and awkward figure of Dr. Jano.
When Dr. Jano rubs up against Amalia, he sends her into a tailspin of soul-searching as she struggles to reconcile her desire to be saintly and her desire to give in to the urges created by Jano’s sudden and crudely expressed interest in her. At one point, Amalia even announces that her mission in life is to save the doctor’s soul by bringing him to Christ. From this extreme she moves to the opposite; groping him back and masturbating in his bed. Amalia simply has no idea of how to deal with these new feelings that have been unleashed in her. But this is not simply a question of age and inexperience as her mother Helena seems to be facing a similar challenge. As Jano and Amalia circle around one another, Jano is also flirting with Helena. Helena is a former diver who suffers from tinnitus and so Jano takes her for tests and tries to convince her to take part in a conference-closing roleplay in which she will play herself as a patient in a hospital. A roleplay which would, if successful, mark the full medicalisation of the hotel and a reduction of the characters’ subtle and awkward relationship to formalised comfort of the ‘doctor-patient relationship’ which seems to be the central theme of the conference. Helena and Jano flirt, tease and talk to one another but never quite seem to get it together.
Indeed, while Amalia and Helena are both trapped between their sense of morality and their lust, the same is true of Jano who suddenly remembers towards the end of the film that he has a wife and kids. Tellingly though, Jano’s moral dilemma is expressed not as a tension between God and lust but as a set of ambiguous feelings about the charismatic and philandering Dr. Vesalio who inspires him to grope Amalia but whose presence in the same room as Jano seems to inspire feelings of dread and awkwardness. It is almost as though the strutting Vesalio is too masculine for Jano.
All of these layered and intertwining sets of tensions and relationships undeniably make for a frustrating cinematic experience. The film devotes almost the entirety of its length to the love triangle involving Jano, Amalia and Helena only to deny us any sense of resolution or closure. When Jano’s family turn up, the tensions simply dissipate and the conference comes to an end, returning the hotel to its previous condition as though nothing had ever happened. However, as frustrating as this lack of resolution might be, I would argue that it is absolutely central to a full enjoyment of La Nina Santa.
Despite its religious overtones, The Holy Girl is an intensely humanistic piece of film-making. It presents us with a series of tensions between the demands of the flesh and the demands of morality but it also suggests that these tensions are largely of our own making and largely unproductive. Indeed, the only character who does achieve some sense of dramatic closure is Amalia’s friend Jose (Julieta Zylberberg) who experiments with sex with boys and girls, gradually losing her inhibitions in the process only to reach the end of the film balancing both the need for friendship, the need for sex and the need to appear to abide by the moral laws that surround her. The only truly Holy Girl is the one who realises that there is no point in trying to be holy.