Tali tries to talk on the phone through the racket of the children. [Play sound file.]

As the boys run to see a cow mired and struggling in the swamp, the sounds of nature are clearer than their voices. [Play sound file.]

The racist master/servant dynamic is reproduced in the children.

Momi’s love for Isabel is predicated on Isabel's availability as a domestic servant.

A miraculous appearance of the Virgin on this water tower is packaged for television.

As Tali stands listening, Martel uses a narrative strategy of “mysterious dislocation.” We never find out what sound Tali is so happy to discover.

Images from La Niña Santa [The Holy Girl].

Helena pretends to supervise the kitchen help while Mirta looks on.

The hotel is hosting a convention of ear, nose and throat specialists.

Martel stresses the sensuality of close quarters, the idle hours of the siesta. Here, Amalia wakes her mother.

“The ear,” says Martel, “is very beautiful, like a shell.”

Playing with space and depth of field: Here, the conference organizer discusses plans while Dr. Vesalio frolics in the background.

Compression of space: Amalia stands behind Dr. Jano and Helena.


It is filmic convention to make the voice primary by modulating ambient sound. Martel does the opposite. When noise overwhelms voice and any other sounds, as in the example above, there may be a realistic basis for the submersion of the dialogue. Most of the time, however, in Martel’s films, noise is not “backgrounded” for the sake of clarity, and the spectator often has to strain to hear the words spoken. At one point, Tali and her husband discuss Luchi’s problem tooth over the sound of welding. As with Luchi and Mecha, there is an aural motif associated with Tali: she is constantly straining to hear above the sounds of children’s shouting. The motif is at once symbolic and realistic: Tali is enveloped in the noise of motherhood and can hardly hear herself think. Monteagudo notes that in La ciénaga there are

“so many overlapped voices, rather than crossed dialogue you could talk about polyphony” (74).

Martel emphasizes noise with clarity and uniformity, since for her sounds are more revealing than words.

To return to the opening of the film, narratively the sequence sets up Mecha's class position and emotionally desperate situation. At the same time it juxtaposes the decaying bourgeoisie with an overgrown and encroaching natural environment.[23][open endnotes in new window] In this sequence the sounds of the natural world made to sound as close as the clinking glasses. “The harsh, naked quality of the sounds, accentuated by their startling loudness and by the lack of intermediate noise as filler” intensifies the sense that both the social and natural world are pervaded by hostility, as Lindley Hanlon notes of the same technique in Bresson (327).[24] The visual claustrophobia of the framing is organically reproduced in the soundtrack where the natural world threatens to close in.

Later in that sequence, as the boys run to see a cow mired and struggling in the swamp, the sounds of the woods are louder than their voices. Under the wash of the cicadas and the hum of the undergrowth, the mooing of the cow and the barking of the dogs are clearer and have less reverberation than the voices.

Again, Martel is playing with convention. In ordinary narrative cinema, sound without reverberation often functions to create intimacy, and thus close miking may be used to privilege narratively significant voices. As Rick Altman puts it, reverbless sound is

“a close-up sound, sound spoken by someone close to me, but it is also sound spoken toward me rather than way from me” (“Sound Space,” 61).[25]

The intimate effect of close microphone placement, according to Altman, places viewers/listeners inside the “fabricated narrative.” Even though filmmakers currently have many means of creating this same effect of intimacy with digital and Dolby to “give a direct, close, and palpably physical to the voice” (Chion Voice, 166), Altman's point remains valid. Clarity of dialogue and intimacy of voice usually are the vehicles by which film spectators enter the story world.

Not so with Martel's films. In La ciénaga, the viewer has no such privileged audio access. Dialogue is not “sanctioned”; “the image displaces us incessantly.” But no verbal consistency “holds out its hand” as an “effective stabilizer” (Altman, 62). Within Martel’s narrative structure, noise remains impersonal and cannot address the spectator as speech can. What is more, the words spoken are often “emanation speech,” as I mentioned, and are rendered in a sense as noise. Thus the narrative creates an effect of “inside” and “outside” at the same time; the spectator is both immersed and excluded. The pattern of identification is not as direct as it usually is in art cinema nor as encompassing as it is in Hollywood movies. When our up-close observer stance gets pierced in the end, the emotional impact is unexpected.

As I demonstrated with regards to the opening sequence, noise takes the place of music throughout La ciénaga. It’s worth pointing out that the film is lacks non-diegetic music. Music, however, would have a far greater fluidity than sound effects “which tend to remain diegetic” (Gorbman, 22). The noise is part of and not a commentary on the diegesis or filmic story world. While noise holds the spectator to the story world as music does (though through an engagement more sensual than emotional), it never points outside that world. In contrast, music, especially use of pre-existing pieces, “adds value” in part by calling up the spectator’s associations and emotional memory of a particular piece.[26] Narrative has a different relation to noise, which has no existence outside the filmic world. To put it simply, the spectator might enjoy the music for its own sake (and make a mental note to seek out the soundtrack); but she will not get “lost” in noise in quite the same way.

Through a contradictory but effective combination of tactile sound effects and speech that seems indifferent to the spectator, Martel traps the spectator in physical space, but she also allows for emotional and intellectual distance as we observe the minutia of every life. Like her colleagues from the New Argentine Cinema, she engages with current reality in a commitment to the everyday, ordinary lives that unfold in the shadow of political and economic crisis. As Tamara Falicov points out:

"While the pacing is slow at times, it resonates with audiences who can relate to those quotidian experiences when things do not function correctly (people block roads, gates are locked, the power goes out)" (125).

Despite her exploration of the middle class, Martel’s focus is on outsiders: to the Buenos Aires-centric national culture,[27] to the masculine, to the public sphere. Leila Gómez notes that interiority is Martel's subject: the interior of Argentina and the interior of the domestic spaces where desire breeds and festers. This last is domain of women and children, and far more political than it might at first appear. La Ciénaga is full of pointed observations on the casual racism and class bias that is

“often assumed and unquestioned within the worldview of upper-crust white families in Argentina” (Falicov, 125).

Mecha constantly complains about “estos indios” [“those Indians”], accuses Isabel of stealing towels, and expects a “natural” subservience from her. Mecha cannot acknowledge her own dependence and is unable to see Isabel as anything but her servant. Isabel’s generosity in looking after the family goes unreciprocated when she finds herself in difficulty.

Such power dynamics permeate all aspects of family life. The boys hunt with native boys serving as “retrievers,” fretting all the while that the Indian youth might be “taking advantage” of their dog. Even as Joaquín pets the dog obsessively, he claims that such behavior is a sign of Indian perversity. Later, after Perro (Fabio Villafañe), Isabel’s boyfriend, has taken them fishing at her request, Joaquín throws the fish away, claiming that “those Indians” will eat fish that are “pura tierra” (“just dirt”). However, Isabel retrieves them, and in the next sequence the family is shown eating these same fish with gusto. Momi’s love for Isabel, though innocent enough, is also predicated on the servant's availability most of the time at home. Much like her brother José, Momi feels entitled to Isabel’s time and attention. Isabel’s role as Momi's object of adoration and maternal substitute is in fact an extension of her role as servant within the household. The distinctions between master and servant that are porous in practice must be reinforced symbolically through language.

Martel's psychological and social observations are acute, embedded in a subtle and witty dialogue. Graciela Borges gets some of the best lines, but her virtuoso performance reflects Martel’s subordination of words to other means of expression. When her eldest son slips in the familiarity of her own nickname Mecha and uses it for Mercedes, the family’s patron and her husband’s former lover, a small tightening of her lips conveys the sucker punch she swallows as she realizes she has lost her son to this rival. Mecha, perpetually intoxicated or hungover, tries to block out facts, realizations, noise. It is not insignificant that she tries in vain to focus on the television broadcasts of the apparition of the Virgin.

The miraculous is packaged by television, here presented in the most localized terms — an Argentina that is surprisingly “Latin American”[28] — rather than a globalizing force. But this televised religion comes to us as just part of the racket of the house, and Mecha can no more focus on it than on her children. Her one moment of release comes as an interruption of her TV viewing: music takes over as the family dances by her bedside. As Jones notes, this sequence is

“so carefully crafted and tightly organized that [it] is almost a film unto itself” (24).

It is another example how the soundtrack stops the forward movement of narrative time, albeit here through a more conventional device. Despite this interlude and others that suspend the plotline, the threat expressed sonically in the opening sequence comes to its implacable, silent conclusion. As Tali and her daughter Mariana focus on a sound upstairs, they miss the terrible thud in the patio as Luchi falls.

We never hear the sound Tali is so happy to discover. Jones characterizes this as one of Martel’s strategies of “mysterious dislocation”:

“her tendency to break in on her characters as they’re absorbed by some offscreen sound or event and show the event only later or not at all” (24).

This is one of number of ways that the spectator is exhorted to listen, and through listening to participate sensually in the film world, even while the dialogue functions to distance us. Martel’s use of noise, with its almost mathematical precision, though naturalistic, is heightened, hyper-real[29] and often thereby more expressive and strange. (I will elaborate on this in the next section.)

As Penny Mintz has demonstrated in relation to Orson Welles, even a slight mismatch of sound (that is, variations in film sound conventions) can

“make us vaguely uncomfortable, slightly dislocated, usually without our knowing why” (290).

Martel, while demonstrating a keen engagement with current reality, keeps us “vaguely uncomfortable,” tense without quite knowing why, attuned, perhaps to something just beyond the concrete.[30]

La niña santa

Martel's sense of the “mystic” takes a more explicit form in La niña santa, a less complex but equally effective narrative that again focuses on women and the domestic spaces of the “interior.” Though set in Salta, La niña santa is little concerned with the social tensions of this small town. The hotel setting is closed off, a timeless world apart.[31] Here lives the teenaged Amalia (Maria Alche, in an acclaimed performance) with her mother (Mercedes Moran, in a complete reversal of her dowdy Tali), Uncle Freddie (Alejandro Urdapilleta), and the employees who actually run the place, mainly long suffering Mirta (Marta Lubos). Though the hotel teams with whispers, secrets and the very breath of so many strangers together, as in the previous film, a sense of abulia reigns. During the time the film takes place, the hotel is hosting the annual convention of ear, nose and throat specialists, some of whom prefer to ignore panels and papers in favor of feminine sightseeing. Amalia, indoctrinated into Catholic mysticism by her beautiful Sunday school teacher, Inés (Mía Maestro), thinks she hears God’s calling when she encounters one of the doctors, Dr. Jano[32] (Carlos Belloso), unexpectedly rubbing up against her in the street. Her mother Helena thinks she herself hears the stirrings of forbidden passion in the same rather hapless man. While Helena exudes a knowing sexuality, her “affair” with Jano is nearly as imaginary as her daughter’s. If Amalia misconstrues molestation for romantic interest, Helena confuses attraction with grand romance.

Martel stresses the sensuality of close quarters, the pool, the idle hours of the siesta, and late night. The overall effect is not unlike La ciénaga’s “promiscuity of sheets and smells,” a mix of eroticism and decay:

“strange vital energy amidst inertia and paralysis” (Monteagudo, 71.)

Once again the film represents as much inaction as action: Amalia lies around with Josefina, while her mother seems to spend most of her time napping. Sound effects here more obviously “stop” us in space as narrative time is suspended.

La niña santa, like La ciénaga, reveals a conception of sound as “active agent” that anchors and guides the visual. In her second film, Martel also thematizes sound as a narrative thread in a film that, the director says, is designed to inspire reverie (“Making of”). What’s more, because of the audiologists' conference taking place at the hotel, the ear itself is onscreen in numerous close-ups: as an object of sensual desire, and as a visual reminder of the complexity of communication. Its pathways hidden, it tantalizes with its erogenous mysteries. As Martel puts it,

“The ear is very beautiful, like a shell. It doesn't have the sense of moral judgment an eye can have when it's looking at you. Ears are more animal and less rational than eyes” (quted in “Sex and the Saintly”)

In terms of the film's visual style, Martel again eschews connecting spaces. With so many interiors and no establishing shots, the spectator might be confused as to location, thinking that everything takes place within the hotel. This only adds to the feeling of claustrophobia. The shots alternate between wide-angle close-ups with a foreshortened depth of field and medium shots with deeper focus.[33] Martel, repeatedly using a frontal shot of one character standing behind the other, compresses the space between them and makes a simple shot begin to seem sinister. Indeed, the illumination and framing of Amalia’s odd off-kilter features is reminiscent at times of horror-film conventions. In terms of art direction, the palette is toned down in the interiors, where browns and ocres dominate, so that the sequences around the thermal pool stand out in their washed-out whites and blues. As in La ciénaga, water has a pride of place in the film’s symbology, with the splashes of the thermal pool adding one of the most indelible sound effects.

As I will demonstrate, the paradoxes of sound, with its confusion of materiality and immateriality, its sensuous elusiveness, as well as difficulty of interpretation is central in the narrative of La niña santa, which unfolds, it could be said, much like the mechanism of hearing itself:

"What we call 'sound' is really an onrushing, cresting and withdrawing wave of air molecules that begins with the movement of any object, large or small, and ripples out in all directions" (Ackerman, 177).

The plot, with its “elaborate pathways,” “curlicues, branches, roundabouts, relays” does not follow a straightforward linear pattern of cause and effect, yet is as efficient as any “ingenuous contraption” (Ackerman, 178). In commenting on how sound becomes a narrative theme in the film, Stephen Hunter summarizes the plot as

"a kind of rigorous meditation on the most banal of human interactions: It chronicles, in a dozen variants, the disconnect between what is said and what is heard. The movie, in other words, is a farrago of missed communications, sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, always dispiriting. Is that the voice of God or random noise? Is that a sexual entreaty or a deviant's touch?"

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