Film review: 'Holy Girl' gets better as it goes

Published: Friday, July 8 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

THE HOLY GIRL — *** — Maria Alche, Mercedes Moran, Carlos Belloso; in Spanish, with English subtitles; rated R (sex, brief nudity, mild profanity).

Although there's no acknowledgement given to late author Vladimir Nabokov anywhere in its credits, "The Holy Girl" is pretty much his "Lolita," with Roman Catholic overtones.

That's to be expected, considering that Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar is this drama's executive producer. Almodovar has what some might call an unhealthy preoccupation with organized religion, as well as being hung up on peculiar sexual practices.

Almodovar is simply a producer here, and what screenwriter/director Lucrecia Martel does with this material is not nearly as lurid as what we have come to expect from Almodovar (though the film's wicked sense of humor mirrors Almodovar as well).

The title refers to the film's main character, 16-year-old Amalia (Maria Alche), who lives in a hotel with her mother, Helena (Mercedes Moran). Mom is so depressed that she sits in bed, in the dark for much of the day. But both their lives change with the arrival of Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), a middle-aged physician who's also staying in their hotel, which is hosting a medical conference.

The doctor flirts with Helena, despite the fact that he's married. And not knowing her identity or age, he also fondles Amalia in public, and then quickly flees. Rather than tell her mother what has happened, the staunchly religious Amalia begins stalking the doctor, hoping that she may be able to "redeem" him in some way.

Obviously, this one is not for all tastes, but it is an impressive showing for Argentine filmmaker Martel, who's managed to do Almodovar-type material every bit as well as her mentor.

As slowly as the film starts, it gets better as it goes along, and a seemingly nebulous ending is appropriate and wickedly funny. The film is also made a little more creepy by the theremin music on the soundtrack, courtesy of musician Manuel Schaller.

The performances by the three leads are effective as well, especially newcomer Alche, who really looks like a teen (she's actually in her early 20s). And despite his character's flaws, Belloso makes him compelling and fascinating to watch. And he's well-matched by Moran's rather pathetic Helena.

"The Holy Girl" is rated R for scenes of simulated sex and other sexual contact, brief glimpses of full male nudity, and use of some mild profanity (mostly religiously based). Running time: 106 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com