Dir/scr.Lucrecia Martel Arg-Spain-It. 2004. 106mins

Thecombination of Catholic anxiety and female sexual awakening is hardly a novelone in auteur cinema, but it receives an idiosyncratically oblique treatment inThe Holy Girl. Director-writer Lucrecia Martel made her name with debut TheSwamp (La Cienaga), which marked her out as a central figure of thenew Argentine cinema, and this eagerly awaited follow-up, which plays incompetition at Cannes, more than confirms its promise. The film's prize chanceshere also look good.

Asometimes perplexing narrative approach and tantalising finale might deterbuyers, making this a specialist art title, but the film's intelligence and itsdistinctive, lucid voice should make smart festivals more than eager.

Asin Martel's previous film, the setting is the town of La Cienaga, whereteenager Amalia (Alche) lives with her glamorous mother Helena (Moran), whoruns a large crumbling spa hotel and convention centre.

Currentlyvisiting is a delegation of medics, including unprepossessing middle-aged DrJano (Belloso), for whom Helena has a growing yen. Standing behind Amalia oneday in a crowd, Jano rubs himself sexually against the girl, then is alarmed tofind he has started more than he intended.

Meanwhile,the developing sexuality of Amalia and best friend Josefina (Zylberberg) is inconflict with the religious aspirations instilled in them at school by devoutteacher Ines (Maestro).

Atonce an understated psychodrama and a wonderfully excruciating comedy ofmisunderstanding, The Holy Child finally evades categorisation sinceMartel's approach is so slippery.

Theelliptical narrative always obliges us to pay attention and to catch up laterwhen we lose our way. Martel tends to present her many characters withouttelling us who they are, and we often draw conclusions about theirrelationships only to find ourselves down a blind alley: for example, thedivorced Freddy (Urdapilleta), with whom Helena has a tender rapport, at firstappears to be her lover but is later identified as her brother, who also livesin the hotel.

Theway we are kept in the shade parallels the characters' misunderstandings ofeach other. Other threads also remain obscure: Helena is getting insistentphone calls from the pregnant wife of her ex-husband, but we are never toldwhat she wants to talk about.

Occasionally,Martel will pull a bizarre dramatic coup, all the more striking for beinginitially inexplicable. A sudden crash is heard at Josefina's apartment, and afew moments later a naked man walks in: we have to wait a while to be told,perfectly casually, that he has fallen from two floors up, and that hissurvival appears to be one of those miracles the girls discuss in theologyclass.

Thenarrative also appears to build up to a moment of crisis or epiphany forAmalia, who believes she has a religious mission to save a soul: but Martelbrings events to a minor-key close, denying us the showdown towards which thelast few scenes seem to be heading. For some, this will be an outrageous denialof narrative responsibility, but it is characteristic of Martel's provocativeindirectness.

Whilethe film is less intensely atmospheric than La Cienaga, a similar moodof decayed claustrophobia still dominates, with the off-beat hotel setting atonce institutional and redolent of seedy charm. While anything but flamboyant,and visually even downbeat, the film is always stylistically alert, forevernudging our attention into unaccustomed directions.

CinematographerFelix Monti goes for unobtrusively skewed framings, and makes teasing play onseemingly inconsequential background event: a running gag has cleaners hoveringaround the hotel with spray cans.

Thefilm also makes suggestive, complex use of sound: dialogue is layered a laRobert Altman, while both soundtrack and narrative make distinctive use of thetheremin, an electronic instrument with an unearthly keening sound.

Apartfrom Maestro's charismatic teacher and Moran's glamorous, careworn Helena ' ajewel among sexy, intelligent older woman roles ' Martel goes out of her way tochoose a studiedly mundane-looking cast, none more so than Belloso's reticent,memorably shifty Jano.

AsAmalia, Alche is never excessively sexualised in the way she might have been inany number of comparable European films; but her ostensibly sullen facedevelops into a mirror of complex, ultimately unknowable emotions, and alongwith Zylberberg as her more knowing best friend, Alche makes a strong,unsettling impression.

Evenabsorbed viewers may leave the film wondering what it is finally about, butthat only proves The Holy Child is one for repeated viewings. Itcertainly engages the mind and the emotions more fully and subtly than any filmyet seen in this year's competition.

Prod cos: Lita Stantic, El Deseo, Senso Producciones, LaPasionaria, Teodora, R&C Produzioni
Int'l sales:
Fr dist:
Exec prods:
Pedro Almodovar, Agustin Almodovar, Esther Garcia
Prod des:
Main cast:
Maria Alche, Mercedes Moran, CarlosBelloso, Alejandro Urdapilleta, Julieta Zylberberg, Mia Maestro