La Niña Santa & The Power of Desire

Para la versión en español, cliquea aquí


La Niña Santa (2004) follows an adolescent girl named Amalia who lives in a rundown spa hotel in Salta with her mother. When a group of doctors arrive for a medical convention, she becomes obsessed with saving one of them, Dr. Jano, after he molests her in a crowd. But soon a love triangle unfolds between Dr. Jano, Amalia, and her mother.

The 2000s in Latin America brought a wave of female directors that had never been seen before. The most prominent of these directors is, without question, Lucrecia Martel, whose debut film, La Ciénaga, I previously wrote about. Her Salta Trilogy explored and questioned gender roles as well as the oppressive nature of the patriarchy. La Niña Santa offers a much more complex view of desire and its limits with a story that subverts the patriarchal narrative structure. If Nabakov had decided to write Lolita from the young girl’s perspective and then given her a complicated and sometimes sinister passion, you would be somewhere near La Niña Santa.

La Niña Santa

But for all its dark passion, Martel has described the film as somewhat autobiographical. Martel has said, “What I put in it is my personal experience in life, my memories. When I was in my teens, I was a very religious person. I thought I had a special relationship with God or anything that was up there. Now, I don’t believe in miracles, but I do believe in the emotion you feel in front of a miracle – the emotion of something unexpected revealed to you.” Amalia stands in for every girl in that period between adulthood and childhood where passions become more mature but our imagination does not.

This is not the oft-told story of the young girl who is mature beyond her years and sadistically seduces a well-meaning and innocent adult man. Amalia may have power but she is very much a child. The opening scene finds her and her friends gossiping about their religion teacher, incessantly wondering about her sex life. Later, they enjoy a water fight with some boys their age. It’s harmless fun. Their desire exists only in their minds. This changes when Amalia goes to a theremin show on the street and Dr. Jano rubs up against her in the crowd, unbeknownst to everyone. His reasons for doing so are not explored and are frankly uninteresting. Any man who does this wants to find control, it’s plain and simple. What the event brings forward in Amalia is much more interesting. The assault creates a sense of possibility for her but not on his terms. She finds her own control in this budding desire. Her special connection with God could allow her to save him. As she puts it, it’s her holy mission.

La Niña Santa

She represents a desire uninhibited by social norms, unlike her mother, Helena, who adheres to the demands of the patriarchy. Helena’s hearing problem speaks to her need to compensate for these deficiencies with an unhealthy visual obsession. We see her dancing alone in front of a mirror, her image forever trapped in an act designed to please men. By contrast Amalia, uses other senses like touch and sound to entice Jano. She grabs Jano’s hand and is particularly set off by the music from the theremin. When she finally grabs Dr. Jano’s hand, much to his horror, it is when the theremin plays “La Habanera” from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen. Her similarities with the free-spirited Carmen are ever apparent when she finally makes the leap to exercise her control over Dr. Jano. Sound is almost more important to Martel than visuals in creating a subversive story. 

As Martel puts it, ”When we watch a horror film or any other kind of film that impresses us, we can close our eyes to avoid watching a stabbing, or a shooting, or a car crash or anything else like that… In a movie theater, however, we cannot avoid sound. Sound in cinema has always been disqualified, perhaps, because our society has been organized much more around visual perceptions.” Maybe that’s why Dr. Jano is so put off by Amalia’s forwardness. Not only does the mere act serve to cancel out his own search for control, but the accompanying soundtrack of a woman unwilling to be kept, makes it unbearable.

Amalia’s relationship with Dr. Jano is not the only one that is fraught with dark desires. Her close friend Josefina represents another end to possibility. Setting La Niña Santa during the Alfonsin presidency in the 1980s, Josefina, who encourages Amalia to be free, represents the promise of economic and democratic liberty. Making the film after the devastating economic crash of 2001, that promise also seems fragile. Josefina is bursting with unfulfilled ambition. It’s clear by the way she looks at and constantly hugs and kisses Amalia, that she would like to take the relationship further and her inability to do so makes her incapable of keeping an honest friendship. This boundless sexual desire is violently cut off when Josefina, in a bid to hide her incestuous relationship with her cousin, breaks her promise to Amalia and tells her family about her relationship with Dr. Jano.

La Niña Santa

The film ends with Josefina, the hypocritical friend, telling Amalia that she will always take care of her. We have yet to see Josepfina’s parents tell Helena what has been going on between Dr. Jano and her daughter. We, the audience, are left to imagine what those climactic moments would be like, thereby questioning our power to move the story forward. While many of us may have been judging Amalia’s stalker tactics, our curiosity at how the news will affect everyone turns us into the voyeurs of the voyeur. Martel’s central idea that even the desire of an invisible young girl can be powerful and all-encompassing is fulfilled with us. Suddenly, Martel shows that the desire of the audience can change the future of her story. 

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