Grade: C

If on-screen atmosphere is enough to satisfy, Lucrecia Martel’s “The Holy Girl” is for you. The film is extremely successful in creating the sultry, confined feel of a small family-run hotel where a medical conference sets the stage for an almost casual but potentially devastating encounter between a religiously-minded adolescent girl and a visiting doctor. By shooting the characters very close up in small rooms and narrow hallways, Martel fashions an almost palpable sense of people bumping up against one another in close proximity in a hot, sweaty environment. She’s also adept in suggesting, without clubbing the viewer over the head with it, a mood of vague foreboding and impending personal disaster.

But the story which takes place in the world Martel and her crew have manufactured is, unhappily, so fragmentary and allusive that trying to make much sense of it is rather like grasping at smoke. What’s relatively clear is that one of the physicians at the conference, the hesitant, easily embarrassed Dr. Jano (Carlo Belloso)–a married man with three children, whom he telephones regularly–has drives that he’s not entirely successful in suppressing. Not only does he develop an attraction for Helena (Mercedes Moran), the divorced woman who runs the hotel along with her brother Freddy (Alejandro Urdapilleta)–and who returns the doctor’s modest show of affection–but he also gently but provocatively rubs up against her daughter Amalia (Maria Alche) as he and the girl watch a man performing outdoors on a theremin. Amalia is a young girl obsessed with religion–we see her repeatedly participating in a strange class in which she and her friend Jose (Julieta Zylberberg) listen to odd stories with supposedly pious morals read by their fellow-students–but she and Jose are also typically giggling, gossipy teenagers; and when Amalia feels Jano’s touch she responds by in effect stalking and enticing him. Jose, meanwhile, is snuggling up to her own stepbrother, and it’s the discovery of that relationship that leads her to reveal what Amalia has told her of Jano. The climax occurs just as the good doctor and Helena are about to stage a “consultation” at the convention regarding her hearing loss–and after Jano’s family have arrived to join him for a family vacation.

It’s difficult to discern an overall theme that’s supposed to connect all this. It may be that the theremin, which reappears at irregular intervals, is the symbol intended to provide a connecting thread. It’s an instrument which amazes the onlookers because it produces audible sound without actually being touched; and it seems that touching, or the lack thereof, is the real subject of the film. Jano touches Amalia, but it’s intended as nothing more than a momentary glance without any further commitment. He also makes connection with Helena, but that too is an ephemeral thing. And throughout the picture other people are constantly nudging against one another–very often uncomfortably–in the close quarters Martel has fashioned, with Jose’s contact with both Amalia and her stepbrother taking an especially unsettling tone. (At times the two girls’ conspiratorial attitude is reminiscent of films like “These Three.”) But exactly how the persistent religious overlay fits into this scheme is never made clear, though it’s obviously intended to be ironic, and just as the film seems to be leading to a climax that might tie everything together, it opts for ambiguity rather than resolution. It’s entirely appropriate that water and swimming pools should play so prominent a role throughout the picture: the entire film has a slippery, liquid feel. Even in the titles, letters of the alphabet float from one name to another as if they were all interconnected in some oblique way.

The acting is generally good, although Belloso is a bit too obvious in his reactions from time to time. Most successful are Alche and Zylberberg, who effectively undermine the idea that girls of their age are naive or innocent. And the camera of Felix Monti is like another character as it stays so close to the actors that it often seems poised to touch them itself.

The subtly sinister atmosphere “The Holy Girl” creates is certainly striking. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been combined with the narrative thrust required to give it a solid structure. The result is a film best described as an intriguing failure.

N.B. The film is also being marketed under the title “The Holy Child.”