The Holy Girl and Mad Hot Ballroom

mercedes

The Argentine film La Niña Santa (The Holy Girl) begins extremely well. There’s a beautiful geometry to the opening credits: a trinity of concentric circles interlock against a dark blue background, and when the names of cast and crew appear, one gold letter drops from a name and slides solo down the screen, until taking its place within a new name. A different letter then repeats the pattern. During this, we’ve heard a plaintive, possibly out of tune piano search for a key, and finding it, the alto voice of a young woman sings a religious song a cappella.

The woman turns out to be the musically named Mia Maestro, and she’s lovely in a melancholy, Latin way. Physically, she suggests a slightly more ample Catalina Sandino Moreno: the two women share an inner radiance that manifests outward. Maestro shows strong conviction in these early moments. What she lacks in breath control as a singer, she compensates for with sincere, understated spirituality. After her song, she tries to instill in a group of young girls the precepts of being alert for God’s call, of understanding an individual’s role within God’s plan. Although I consider myself risk averse to Christianity, I could’ve listened to Maestro’s ministrations for hours. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t about her.

I did enjoy the way writer-director Lucrecia Martel took her time in establishing the connections and relationships between characters, except that once I saw how the pieces fit, I realized that I was happier when I didn’t know.

In brief: Helena (well played by the stunning beauty Mercedes Morán) is an ex-diver who manages a hotel. She has an ex-husband whose current, pregnant wife occasionally telephones, and Helena ostentatiously refuses to take the woman’s calls. At her hotel, a congress of ear specialists convenes; one of the doctors, a handsome, outwardly respectable chap named Jano (the balding, crevice-faced Carlos Belloso, who cuts a modestly dashing figure in his collection of pin-striped button-downs) apparently becomes sexually aroused at the sound of a theremin. In the sidewalk crowds that gather ’round to watch and listen as a neighborhood theremin busker plays quivering pop versions of classical warhorses, Jano impales himself into the derrieres of jailbait.

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For perhaps the first half of The Holy Girl’s 106 minutes, I believed that the film was headed somewhere. It goes nowhere, and when Helena’s obnoxious teenage daughter Amalia speaks of praying to receive the stigmata, it’s a dead giveaway that Martel has run out of ideas.

Morán and Belloso are convincing in their scenes together. The burgeoning sexual tension between the divorced Helena and the married Jano (he appeals to her need to view herself as a glamorous figure) sustains The Holy Girl as interest in Amalia’s self-conflict (religious austerity vs. carnal sensuality) attenuates.

Maria Alché, as Amalia, has one bit that works. She and two other girls visit the site of a roadside accident, and they scare one another with their high-pitched squeals and pretend-games of finding a severed hand. They run, screaming with laughter, across the highway, narrowly miss being hit by an oncoming truck, and then disappear into the surrounding woods where they become separated. The camera stays with Amalia, as she thrashes her way through dense brush, able to hear but unable to see the other two. Tantalizingly unexplained, the sounds of gunshots are heard, interspersed with the girls’ wordless cries, and Martel leaves how the three exit the woods a mystery. It’s perhaps the only time that ambiguity enhances Martel’s mise-en-scène. And the sequence, with female adolescents running wild with fear and imagination amidst green foliage, recalls similar themes from Spirit of the Beehive or Picnic at Hanging Rock, only here they’re played out with considerably higher energy.

The cinematographer Felix Monti does well with colors and lighting (the olive and brown interiors of the hotel never become oppressive) yet decidedly less so with camera placements, which, as a friend of mine said after the screening, are about 12-feet closer than they need to be. Even in exterior shots, such as the impromptu theremin recitals, Monti boxes the frame tightly. He expands a bit during the scenes in and around the hotel’s thermal pool, yet we don’t even get a peek at the hotel façade.

By far, Martel’s most lamentable mistake: a recurring sight gag in which a young chambermaid pops up at inopportune moments, spraying disinfectant from an aerosol can. We never see her do anything else; she isn’t integrated into the rest of the backstairs hotel life—she’s just inserted as a punch line to an untold joke.

April 30, 2005

madhotThe sad truth about Mad Hot Ballroom is that—for all its noble intent and enticing premise—it isn’t good. First time feature director Marilyn Agrelo does a poor job of portraying the ballroom dance experience of inner-city elementary school children and their teachers. Even if she weren’t hobbled by the ugly and undistinguished (and indifferent) DV photography of Claudia Raschke-Robinson, Agrelo still wouldn’t know where to place or how to move a camera. Agrelo also doesn’t know how to build or shape scenes—she can’t tell a story. She either mistrusts her material or second-guesses viewers’ attention spans—possibly both.

This disjointed documentary speeds through weeks of instruction and rehearsal as students from three New York neighborhoods (Tribeca, North Manhattan’s Washington Heights, and Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst) learn to tango and rumba. Because of Agrelo’s telescoped slapdashery, no one develops on screen; it’s impossible to care about anyone.

Worse still, the director gives dancing short shrift. Throughout the quarter- and semifinals of a citywide competition, Agrelo cuts constantly from the dancers to crowd reaction shots or to inserts of interview footage. This destroys momentum. Both Agrelo and her wrong-hand woman Raschke-Robinson should have looked at some Fred Astaire movies before invading the public schools: the feet, the legs, ladies, where are they? Where are the long and medium shots? Why does the camera park on faces and torsos?

Of the three sets of school kids, the crew from Washington Heights is the most fun to watch. The principal of P.S. 115 tells us early on that these children come to school with “issues.” Poverty runs high among their families, a majority of whom are immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Mad Hot Ballroom doesn’t much delve into this; what we do see are the lovely, café con leche-colored complexions of the mostly silent children. One boy, Wilson, exhibits genuine poise in the tango. The director should have given him a showcase, rather than snippets. In general, the sequences from the Spanish-accented Washington Heights have a stronger flavor than the rest of the film. Perhaps because the music is better—at least twice, someone cues Della Reese’s recording of “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” an injection of sultry atmosphere that makes a difference. – NPT

May 10, 2005

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