Understated Family Drama Lit Up by The Holy Girl’s Smile

Lucrecia Martel’s La Niña Santa (“The Holy Girl”), from her own screenplay, slithers along as a highly controlled sex comedy that is unusually civilized in comparison to the more prevalent crudities in movies these days. With her first two films (the first was 2001′s La Ciénaga), Ms. Martel, not yet 40, has demonstrated a mastery of the medium that lifts her into the ranks of the world’s most distinctive auteurs.

Furthermore, I can report that an Argentine actress named María Alche has knocked me for a loop as the teenage temptress, Amalia. Kent Jones has already hailed her “bottomless eyes” in Film Comment, March-April 2005, but I was even more mesmerized by her devilishly crooked smile when her girlfriend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) whispers some salacious gossip into her ear about their female music teacher. Amalia represents every high-school girl, alone or in concert with her girlfriends, who has ever destroyed a boy’s ego and libido by simply smiling or laughing knowingly at him.

Amalia’s mother is a divorced hotelkeeper, Helena (Mercedes Morán); soon, Amalia and her mother both become erotically entangled with the married ( … with children) Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), whose face is marked by a perpetually fearful doomsday expression. His adulterous opportunities arise while he’s attending a medical conference at Helena’s hotel. This could have been the normally crass intergenerational triangle, with much steamy huffing and puffing between the sheets. But Ms. Martel is much subtler and drier than that. The humor is in the details.

For example, the doctors attending the conference are eye, ear, nose and throat specialists-hardly the most romantic specialty of their profession. And the hotel itself is falling apart, which contributes to a feeling of disorganization and decay in the human as well as the structural sphere. Helena has a lively sense of humor, and Amalia, of course, has none. A running joke involves Helena’s refusal to take any phone calls from her ex-husband and his new wife, who are just dying to tell her that they’re about to become the proud parents of twins.

There are few master-scene compositions as such, only bits and pieces of off-angle shots of characters, wondering about the source of off-screen noises. One such noise is that of a woman who goes from room to room throughout the hotel spraying deodorant on the presumably malodorous premises. There is a studied casualness in which characters walk in on each other at the most embarrassing moment, leading to an unfilmed climax elaborately set up just before the film ends-the inevitable yet unseen explosion of all the accumulated intrigues involving Helena, Amalia and Dr. Jano.

I’m not sure what I think of Ms. Martel’s frustrating forbearance in not showing us all her plot chickens coming home to roost. Is she being hyper-ironic or merely squeamish? Since her next project is reportedly an out-and-out horror film, she may be experimenting with leaving the unthinkable to the audience’s imagination. Or is she simply evading the sheer banality of an opéra bouffe resolution that is too much of a sticky mess in an atmosphere of widespread sloth and lethargy?

Amalia, particularly, is always throwing herself horizontally on any friendly form for comforting caresses, be it her mother, uncle or girlfriend. One feels the heat softening everyone’s brain and melting the last reserves of dignity and formality.

When Amalia is intimately groped by a stranger (actually Dr. Jano) in a crowd watching a theremin concert, her first reaction is one of engaged curiosity-to see the face of the stranger who “molested” her. She then becomes the relentless stalker of the already terrified Dr. Jano, who exudes fear and guilt through every pore of his sweat glands. To exorcize this double-thrusted menace to his marriage-that is, his flirtation with Helena and his groping of Amalia-he calls his wife and children to join him at the conference. What he can’t possibly predict is that the catastrophe he fears comes from neither Helena nor Amalia, but from the latter’s closest friend, Josefina, who betrays Amalia to save herself from suspicion of misbehavior.

The last shots of the film are thus climactically anticlimactic: two girls frolicking in the pool, one unaware of the impending scandal about to engulf her, and the other too ashamed to confess her treachery. Helena and Dr. Jano are about to engage in a ridiculous live show of patient and doctor for the medical conference. But the curtain goes down before the real show begins. Perhaps Ms. Martel is simply saying that life is like this-simply a rehearsal for the big show, which turns out to be nothing. Or perhaps not.

Anyway, see The Holy Girl, if only for Ms. Alche’s satanic smile.

Fellini’s Cabiria

Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957), from a screenplay by Fellini, Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli (with additional dialogue in Roman street dialect by Pier Paolo Pasolini), is being revived in a newly restored 35-millimeter print at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, 212-727-8110) from May 18 to May 26.

Usually, when a revival is described as “restored,” it means little more than the original version with most of the glitches in the older prints removed. But in this instance, it means that an extra seven-minute scene, removed by producer Dino de Laurentiis and finally restored only in 1998, is included in this print. That’s 41 years after the film’s Oscar-winning release in America-a tale of petty church censorship if ever there was one, especially since there is nothing even mildly shocking about the excised scene.

It begins when Cabiria, Giulietta Masina’s prostitute protagonist, is left by a trucker client in the middle of nowhere and sees a man drive up in a car. After he agrees to give her a lift back to Rome, she follows him around as he dispenses, from a sack, food and other supplies to people literally living in holes in the ground. The scene is a crucial one in shaping Cabiria’s eventual and near-fatal decision to try to leave her profession, particularly when she recognizes Bomba, a one-time high-priced prostitute, now decrepit and utterly destitute.

Sounds harmless, doesn’t it? Well, it seems that someone in the Vatican complained that it was the mission of the church to feed the poor, and not that of a private, possibly secular individual.

Still, even in the mutilated version of the film, Masina shone and sparkled in her shabby role. Attired in a sleeveless, zebra-striped blouse, a moth-eaten fur stole, and grotesquely incongruous bobby socks, Masina’s Cabiria impishly burlesques her ancient calling and then poignantly transcends it in a final burst of tragic irony. In the process, Fellini divests his lurid subject of any devious lechery or eroticism. The film ends on a note of high pathos, comparable to the finest moments of Chaplin, as Masina’s final close-up sums up one of the most resourceful performances in screen history.

The story begins with Cabiria running across a lonely field with her lover. The camera remains distant from the apparently carefree couple. The two figures are framed against a bleak, gray-lit landscape, its pastoral simplicity marred by telephone poles and distant housing developments. The absence of mood music and expository dialogue creates some of the same sinister tensions as in the first sequences of David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946). The suspense heightens as Cabiria stops at the edge of a stream and impulsively swings her handbag in an ever-widening arc while her lover furtively glances about. Suddenly Cabiria’s escort seizes her handbag, shoves her into the stream and runs off, never to be seen again.

This one episode establishes the pattern of Cabiria’s life, the progression from illusion to disillusion. In these early scenes, the loud, vulgar, ungainly aspects of Cabiria’s essence are emphasized. She is literally dragged from the stream and disrespectfully handled like a sack of soggy potatoes. Her rescue and the inept artificial respiration that follows deny her even the dignity of a disaster.

The audience is almost invited to laugh at her plight, but the physical discomfort of the situation-her young rescuers shivering in their bathing suits, Cabiria almost collapsing as she calls her lover and tries to escape her nightmarish predicament-discourage the laughter that her appearance would normally arouse.

Cabiria quickly resumes the nightly routine of her existence with her circle of prostitutes, dope peddlers and procurers in the ruins of the Archaeological Walk near the Baths of Caracalla, a hang-out for hookers looking for pick-ups from passing cars and trucks. Here Fellini doesn’t glamorize Cabiria’s profession. Actually, prostitutes are merely another tribe in the confederation of wanderers and outcasts, wastrels and opportunists, with whose irregular patterns of living Fellini had been concerned up to Nights of Cabiria. Famously, after Cabiria he recruited Marcello Mastroianni as his alter ego in La Dolce Vita (1960) and entered a final phase of his career that was more abstract and self-reflecting than what had preceded it.

After collaborating with the underrated Alberto Lattuada on Variety Lights (1950), a pleasant but minor farce about a company of traveling actors, Fellini virtually inherited his first assignment as a solo director with The White Sheik (1952), which producers originally sought as a vehicle first for Michelangelo Antonioni and then for Lattuada. From firsthand professional experience, Fellini satirized the bumbling artisans of the Italian live-action comic strips. (Giulietta Masina appeared here briefly as a whimsical lady of the evening.) Next came I Vitelloni (1953), which dramatized the aimless existence of young loafers in a resort town; Il Bidone (1955), which examined the machinations of confidence men; and La Strada (1954), an odyssey of itinerant circus performers.

By casting the diminutive, clown-faced, essentially sexless Masina as his protagonist in Nights of Cabiria, Fellini guarded against any displays of either sensuality or sentimentality. By depicting Cabiria’s spirited recovery from her ludicrous betrayal, Fellini suggests an awareness of his heroine’s indestructibility. We sense that Cabiria’s dunking in the stream is not her first humiliation, and Fellini quickly ensures that it shall not be her last.

When Cabiria jauntily plies her wares in a more fashionable part of Rome, she witnesses a violent argument between a famous actor (Amedeo Nazzari) and his glamorous mistress (Dorian Gray). After the mistress stalks away, the actor curtly summons Cabiria to his car. They drive to a nightclub and from there to his palatial villa. When they arrive at the villa, Cabiria is overwhelmed by the splendor around her. When the actor’s disaffected mistress returns unexpectedly, the actor hastily conceals Cabiria in his sumptuous bathroom while he and his mistress resume their affair. Cabiria is surreptitiously released the next morning; as the actor quietly leads her through the bedroom, Cabiria looks on wistfully at the girl sleeping contentedly.

As it turns out, this is the funniest episode in the film. The pace is leisurely as Masina runs through her bag of low-comedy tricks: She collides with glass doors, grapples with endless curtains, scales heavily carpeted stairs with the hunched determination of an Alpine skier, and grimaces at every new situation with the knowingly pursed lips of a fishwife at an art gallery. Her defeat here is less a downfall than a pratfall.

Suddenly God enters Cabiria’s life in the guise of a miracle-seeking procession to a shrine of the Virgin Mary. Here Fellini divides his attention between Cabiria, who prays for the intangible miracle of a new life, and a crippled pimp and dope peddler, who has come to have his paralyzed limbs healed. In a brilliantly composed and edited passage, Cabiria and the pimp alternately struggle through a milling, hysterical crowd of penitents to reach the altar. At the edge of one overhead shot, an elaborate loudspeaker mocks the spontaneity of the procession. The forward motion of the scene continues until the pimp throws away his crutches and collapses, writhing and threshing briefly on the floor, before Fellini mercifully fades out the scene.

When Cabiria attempts to regenerate herself, Fellini rewards her efforts with the most disastrous experience of her life. After denouncing her companions for remaining unchanged after their pious invocations to the Madonna, Cabiria temporarily abandons her beat and visits a tawdry music hall, where a hypnotist recruits her for his act. Cabiria is quickly thrust into a romantic fantasy before a boorish audience. She gracefully dances with an imaginary lover whom the hypnotist calls Oscar as the orchestra plays a tinny version of “The Merry Widow Waltz.” After picking some imaginary flowers, Cabiria relives her youthful innocence, which is evoked by the memory of her long black hair. In a breathtaking scene of dramatic recall, Cabiria worriedly asks Oscar if he really loves her and isn’t just deceiving her. She is then snapped out of her trance to find herself an object of derision and ridicule.

Outside, a shy, deferential young man (François Périer) tells her that he was moved by the purity of her memories, and the final movement of the film starts slowly toward its preordained conclusion. After a series of meetings, Cabiria’s suspicions are lulled by the apparent innocence of her admirer, whose name, by what he claims to be a fateful coincidence, is Oscar. Even after Cabiria reveals her profession, he asks her to marry him. On the day they’re to leave for the country to be married, he lures her to the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. Lacking the courage to push Cabiria to her death, he leaves her clawing the ground in grief-stricken revulsion against her fate while he ignobly picks up the handbag with her life’s savings, which she has dropped at his feet, and runs and stumbles through the forest.

Cabiria rises eventually and slowly makes her way to the road-Fellini’s perennial symbol of life. There, she finds a group of adolescents serenading each other; Cabiria’s tears are suddenly illuminated by her smile as the camera closes in on her face, slightly turned, slowly moving forward toward an unconditional acceptance of life. At that final moment, Cabiria is in a state of secular grace, innocent and inviolate despite all the cruelties that have been inflicted upon her.

Still-and I hate to be a grouch about this- Cabiria, for all its merits, may represent the point at which Fellini’s empathy with the stragglers of society began to yield diminishing returns. Somehow, Nights of Cabiria doesn’t have the feel of greatness that I Vitelloni communicates. In I Vitelloni, every character counts for something, and every incident advances toward a common truth. Nights of Cabiria is too much of a one-woman show, with Masina’s heroine achieving a sublime transparency while all the other characters linger in the darkness of deception and irresolution.

Like La Strada, Fellini’s other near-masterpiece, Cabiria has some of the same limitations-an acting vehicle that sometimes loses its way on the road of life and forks out into the byways of virtuoso performance.