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La niña santa

One critic was so strikingly wrong about this film that we shudder to think what other pleasant, quiet, and infinitely introspective cinematic works he has demoted to the rank of unwatchable but now I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. Its motifs, he claims, are merely grazed but never explored in depth and the whole affair turns out to be quite a bore; he adds insult to such lesions by dismissing the characters as equally shallow and unfocused. Now, one would not insist that the film submerges the viewer in emotion and thought it is far too subtle for that. But the sad thing about the remark is how often we as living beings eschew profundity for the bare essentials of survival. We make hasty choices about getting to know certain people, certain books, certain places, and some of us decide that only a few such acquisitions are necessary for the human experience. Those some of us (I gleefully exclude myself) would also have nothing to say about a film like La niña santa.

The film begins with a healthy dose of self-degradation as a young and rather pretty woman by the name of Inés (Mía Maestro) tells a group of adolescent girls about their role in God's plan with some added degradation from the onlookers. Amidst the virgin hordes we find Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg), an irreverent tomboy who even goes by José, and the eponymous lass, Amalia (María Alché), who has the type of wan, permanently disappointed face you would normally associate with Goth girls. She smiles occasionally but the smile is still crooked. And when she does in fact scrutinize an object or person she seems quite repulsed by either herself or what she sees. In time we learn why: her life has been resolved spiritually but not in any other way. Although it might be too much to ask of a teenager to have a complete personality, apart from her faith Amalia really has no personality at all. She is nothing more than the epithet foisted upon her by the director. But since faith can assume a host of different forms, she is distinct and original enough not words commonly applied to teenagers to stand out from among her classmates. And so, it is of little surprise that she also catches the eye of a prurient doctor named Jano (Carlos Belloso).

Jano finds Amalia at a Theremin street concert and forces some of his manliness upon her in a fashion not really punishable by law. She wonders about the soul of this ugly man, why he would do such a thing, and what if anything she can do to help him. That they come into contact to begin with is one of the film's odd conceits. Jano is attending a medical conference at a hotel, the same “dilapidated family hotel” (a unanimous label among reviewers) in which Amalia lives with her dishy mother Helena (Mercedes Morán) and her pasty, self-hating uncle Freddy. The hotel is accurately described by its inhabitants as being unfit for human residence, but Helena grew up in the hotel and knows no other means of managing the daily grind. There are also a slew of family dramas: Freddy has not seen his children since his Chilean ex-wife got custody of them; Helena’s ex-husband is having twins with his new wife; and Josefina is being pressured into a deflowering by her sex-starved boyfriend (the last not quite family, but you get the idea). If a cultured, middle-aged man, a self-absorbed once-married sexpot and a moody adolescent of budding sexuality all sounds like a familiar plotline, you may expect certain things to happen that simply should not. Instead of satisfying our lascivious urges, which are stroked repeatedly and unabashedly, we get rumors and restraint. With diabolical glee, Josefina reports Inés’s alleged indiscretions (“Yesterday she was kissing a much older man, one with hairy knuckles, with tongues down each other's throats, and she was shaking like an epileptic”) and does nothing but encourage Amalia’s curiosity about Jano. Amalia sees Jano at the hotel pool and starts praying to ward off temptation. But it is not the temptation of a handsome man, despite what Freddy says later, it is the temptation of experience; to wit, the experience of being with someone who has an intimate knowledge of the female body. 

What occurs thereafter will smack of humbug, but it remains true to teenagers and their methods, especially guilt-ridden teenagers. Amalia decides to run at once on two very different tracks: she will follow the otolaryngologist around the hotel yet will not succumb to his urges. She will tempt him, worship him, and giggle in knowing giddiness with Josefina, but nothing more. At least this is the plan. She touches children's heads as they race by in the hotel corridor, and one immediately thinks of a benevolent nun. Then she enters his room, finds his shaving cream and rubs some on the inner lapel of her school uniform shirt. At the same time, of course, Jano finally acts on the stolen glance of a bare back in our fabulous opening scene and ingratiates himself with Helena who, like most attractive women, can still fall for one of the oldest lines in that book that people seem to have stopped reading. Their romance, if one can call it that, is boring because Helena is boring, and Janus – I mean, Jano has many other things on his mind: the conference, his family, and that girl who keeps hovering in his vicinity, seizing his fingers in the elevator, shooting him that leer that girls give when they are ready to be conquered. Our camera loves necklines, backs, shoulders, and in general disembodied torsos, and we get to behold our characters not as their words match their treacherous lips, but as their words do not correspond to their bodies. This is very true for Helena, who is shown at every possible angle and therefore Jano’s natural choice of patient for the closing panel of the conference. Why? Because she suffers from a form of tinnitus and sleep disturbance, which in the world of otolaryngology is presumably meaty stuff. But this much-belabored skit will come, we understand, only as our curtain falls. And so, as all the perspectives converge into one sensible whole, one could easily argue nothing of any consequence happens and that everything is the product of a dilapidated life in a dilapidated hotel; one may also wonder what staying at such a hotel says about those doctors. And we haven’t even mentioned Jano’s knuckles.

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