Hormones and holiness make uneasy bedfellows in Lucrecia Martel's feverishly dreamlike drama La Niña Santa. The "holy girl" of the title is Amalia (Maria Alché), a sweet 16-year-old virgin who develops an unhealthily obsessive relationship with country doctor Jano (Carlos Belloso) after he gropes her in the street. Amalia is convinced God wants her to save Jano from himself but, as the unwitting doctor seduces her mother, it's not long before Catholic duty gives way to carnal longing.
Taking place over a week-long medical conference at a rundown Argentine hotel, La Niña Santa's tale of pent up passions simmers without ever reaching boiling point. The setting lends events a clammy, hothouse atmosphere in which Jano's mid-life crisis threatens to upend the lives of Amalia and her mother Helena (Mercedes Morán), though in very different ways. Amalia's convinced that it's her divine vocation to save Jano from his lust, yet her teenage hormones quickly turn her mercy mission into something more.
"LEAVES US WITH LITTLE SENSE OF RESOLUTION"
Strung together by an awkward, adolescent sensuality, Martel's film impassively watches as religious duty bleeds into panting infatuation. It's shot in tight close-ups with a script that's full of murmured, whispered conversations that are always about more than they seem to be.
Fittingly, though somewhat frustratingly, writer-director Martel leaves us with little sense of resolution as this tale judders towards its non-existent climax. Yet, underneath it all there's a distinct sense that we've been privileged enough to watch a young girl's awakening from holy innocence into flawed, imperfect and brazenly sexual adulthood.
In Spanish with English subtitles.