Where does one begin with Lucrecia Martel’s films?  After seeing her second feature (“La Niña Santa”) tonight — which becomes the third of her films I’ve seen and raved about here — all I can do is wonder at this Argentinian writer-director’s extraordinary attention to detail.  With it, she captures the constant exchange between the banal, the wryly ridiculous, and those events that might be profoundly life-altering — profound, that is, if only we weren’t so eager to let them slip by so we can return to our usual patterns.

Take the pubescent Amalia (María Alché) just for starters, the wannabe “holy girl” of the title.  With her heavy eyes and sulking mouth, she enjoys the trashy gossip of her best friend, Josefina, and might well turn out to be hard, mean, sensuous.  But she might turn instead in the direction of the wide-eyed religious ecstasy of their beautiful Bible study teacher, who weeps when singing hymns and is trying to teach the girls the notion of religious vocation:  their role in God’s plan.  “The important thing is to always be alert for God’s call,” she begs them earnestly.  Their homework is to find instances of individuals discovering their vocations — a confusing task that leads the girls to mix ghost stories, profane tales, and contradictory Bible stories as if they might all be equally instructive.

Yet when Amalia finds her calling one afternoon, it combines salvation and sexuality in a heady cocktail that she doesn’t know how to pry apart.  As she watches a man play a theremin with its eerily beautiful sounds and almost unbelievable engineering, a man comes up behind her in the crowd, slowly puts his hands into his pockets, and presses his crotch up against her.  The look on her face reflects perfectly the combined sense of violation and humiliation with the wheels in her mind trying to process the event.  He’s Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), a doctor in town for a conference at Amalia’s mother’s hotel — so she is sure to see him again soon, and she quickly determines that this is God’s call for her to save him.

The married Jano clearly makes a habit of rubbing up against attractive young girls without consequences — but then, he never met Amalia before.  Neither has he encountered a woman like her mother, the lissome and vain Helena (Mercedes Morán).  With her artfully tousled light hair and her knack for showing off her figure, Helena is still bitter about her divorce, and now that she’s received the news that her ex-husband’s new wife is expecting, she seems more than ever prepared to take risks.  When Jano engages in a little flirtation with her, Helena gracefully starts to put herself in his way more frequently, eagerly lapping up his attention despite knowing (or because?) he’s married.  The lubricious Jano is accustomed to enjoying his male privilege while hiding his ugly face behind heavy glasses that almost serve as a mask.  So when his glasses come off, it’s his turn to feel violated.

But here’s the thing about Martel’s films:  no matter how much one might accurately set the scene with a run-down like this, it misses the extraordinary details that make her films erotic, densely aural, tactile.  She shoots all her films using numerous close-ups that often cut surprising parts of the characters’ bodies out of the frame; we catch glimpses of eyes, hands, lips, or we see through mirrors to catch sight of someone’s foot, or the elegant Helena in a backless dress.  Her characters engage in all manner of behavior we don’t quite understand, like the radical vacillations on Amalia’s face between snarling and beatitude.  Most elegant in “The Holy Girl” is the way Martel makes a theme of sound, from the heavenly theremin to the bubbling water of the hotel pool to Helena’s worrisome tinnitus in her ear.  Finally, there is no one other director alive with such a deft facility for understanding the everyday rhythms and conflicts of talk amongst middle-aged women (and on this score American directors lag far, far behind).  Just a few of the scenes between Helena and the other women employees at the hotel are so funny while being so true and familiar that they should be excerpted on YouTube (but that will have to be the work of others, not me).

And then there’s Martel’s gaze on the confused mixture of faith and sensuality amongst teenaged girls — girls who have already begun to realize their power for both good and evil, their fierce determination.  It’s no wonder that they whisper that their angelic-looking religious studies teacher likes to French kiss, or that they might practice those kisses on one another.  Actual sexuality is mostly a mystery, but these girls are fully aware of how frequently their Bible lessons adopt a sensuous cast.

By a thin margin this is Martel’s most approachable film, but like “La Ciénaga” and “The Headless Woman” this one is dense and subtle.  One begins to realize that no matter how precise her dialogue is, it seems on first viewing so banal as to be improvised.  Her films require an attention to the billowing threads of relationships, dialogue, themes, sounds, and facial expressions as they start to combine and braid together, building into emotional problems and perhaps even climaxes.  I can hardly wait for more.

Just two days ago I speculated that Nicole Holofcener’s directorial modesty might be one reason why American critics feel the need to tell us that her films aren’t just “women’s films.”  After watching Lucrecia Martel’s debut film, “La Ciénaga,” I’m convinced.  Compared with Holofcener’s quiet gaze, Martel has an extraordinary vision that appears from the film’s very earliest moments, as in her third film, “The Headless Woman” that I liked so much last month.  It’s no surprise to find that all three of Martel’s film were recently voted to be in the top 10 of all Latin American films made in the 2000s.  “La Ciénaga” (“The Bog” or “The Swamp”) was #1.

This film would never, ever, be voted the best film of the decade by U.S. critics, simply because of its subject matter:  laissez-faire parents, children run amok, racist bile spewed against the family’s Indian servants, and languid sexuality within and amongst this extended family.  It opens in a steamy Argentinian summer, with dark clouds overhead; thunder seems to threaten in the distance throughout most of the film.  Inside the family’s country house, children and teenagers lie together in beds, napping agitatedly in the heat.  Outside, the adults sleep on chaise lounges next to a fetid, dirty pool (one of the several “swamps” of the title); they’ve been drinking all day.  We see one woman’s hands shakily pouring herself yet another glass; it’s a notably bloody red wine.  As she slowly moves around to collect everyone’s glasses, we hear them crash and break on the cement beside the pool.  The middle-aged Mecha (Graciela Borges) has drunkenly fallen on the broken glass and is covered with blood, yet no one seems to notice.  This is not the vision of family that Americans prefer to see.

Yet what we see through Martel’s eyes is the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie satirized as masterfully as Buñuel did.  She has said that she based the film on memories of her own family’s summers together.  It has the dreamy, disconnected, aural feel of a family gathering, to be sure; but there is no nostalgia here.  Those dark clouds, that thunder in the distance:  the film almost feels like a horror flick, with danger always just around the corner.  All the male cousins under the age of eleven roam through the mountains with rifles, always coming as close as possible to shooting one another; they’re covered with old scars and fresh gashes, and one of the boys is missing an eye from an earlier accident.  (“When Joaquin goes to the mountains, I’m frightened for his other eye,” his mother Mecha says fecklessly, unconvincingly, to no one in particular.)  The littlest girls perpetually appear with makeup smeared all over their faces, having been doing who knows what, and the older girls drive cars without licenses at the express wish of their drunken parents.  While the adults accuse their Indian servant Isabel of stealing (and being dirty, refusing to answer the phone for them, living like animals, eating dirty fish…), their daughter Momi seeks from Isabel all manner of attention — maternal, physical, vaguely sexual love.  It’s the same dark humor that Holofcener displays in her films, and it’s directed at many of the same targets:  the boredom, banalities, and transparent hypocrisies of the privileged.

Martel eschews background music or a soundtrack in favor of developing a layering of sound, glances, and conversation, all brilliantly edited together in her scenes.  Take the one in which the heavily bandaged Mecha lounges in her bed, sunglasses on as she nurses another hangover, while her cousin Tali (Mercedes Morán) sits and chats with her; slowly the bed fills with girls.  This was so believably one of those idle conversations amongst middle-aged women that I almost felt its rhythms from memories of family reunions during my childhood.  The two older women chat about the appearance of the Virgin of Carmen on a water tank in town.  “She said it was incredible,” Tali reports about another cousin.  “She was transformed.  She phoned me in tears. ‘You have to see it to understand, Tali,’ she said.”  As the younger girls watch their mothers with that mix of curiosity and boredom, throughout this conversation Mecha’s handsome teenaged son José (Joan Cruz Bordeu) skirts the room after his shower, standing shirtless before the bathroom mirror as his pubescent cousins sneak long looks at his lean, tattooed torso.  As the older women talk about the Virgin, José takes advantage of being the only man in the room by hamming it up a bit for the girls’ benefit, appearing as a kind of male god to them.  He clearly enjoys their admiration, and will continue to enhance it almost to the point of impropriety — sneaking into one cousin’s shower, or dancing seductively with Isabel, the servant, at a club.  Only later, on reflection, does the viewer recognize what a brilliantly complex scene this is, with the meandering chit-chat, the girls’ searching looks at their mothers or the beautiful José, the tangle of subjects and themes, the sense of risk.

And then there’s the loneliness.  Despite the perpetual tangle of bodies, they each feel adrift; think of the scene of the bleeding Mecha lying in glass surrounded by her unwitting husband and friends, or the deludedly hopeful faces of people on TV who have flocked to glimpse the image of the Virgin of Carmen on the side of a water tower.  Tali’s youngest son frets that he will be attacked by the urban legend of an “African rat” his cousins have described to him — a huge doglike creature with two rows of teeth — none of the adults bothers to disabuse him of this fear.  No wonder that Martel has indicated that, for her, the film is about abandonment.

It is Martel’s mastery in storytelling and editing (and this done with only a modicum of film-school training) that turns a lazy family summer into a metaphor for the corruptions of Argentine society; she has explained in interviews that despite its highly naturalistic, almost blasé conversational rhythm, the film was tightly scripted. (Even before it was complete, the film won Best Screenplay at Sundance back in 1999, which permitted her to complete the film and obtain further funding.)  Asked at a recent forum in the San Francisco area how she does this, Martel used the example of long phone conversations with her mother as a source for the oral structure of her films:

After 40 minutes of talking on the phone — in which she and her mother discuss everything — Martel still doesn’t know what her mother is trying to tell her.  But when the conversation is over and Martel asks herself what it was about, she comes to a gradual understanding of how all that has been said ties together.

Considering the worldwide successes of other Latin American directors — most notably Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón (who directed the very best of the Harry Potter films, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro González Iñárritu — the writer-director Martel can’t be far from similar recognition.  She’s already received virtually every Latin American film award, as well as prominent nominations and awards at Cannes and the Berlin Film Festival.  The Academy Awards is one of the only major institutions to stiff her for a nomination.  Nothing about her filmmaking indicates a modesty that will keep it hovering around the dreaded “woman’s” ghetto.  Martel is a force to be reckoned with.

Wow.  See this film:  “The Headless Woman,” or “La mujer sin cabeza,” a 2009 Argentinian film by director Lucrecia Martel.  My best analogy is that it’s a modern-day The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s canonic 19th-century story of a woman suffering from “nervous depression” and driven to madness by the “resting cure,” which prescribed that she remain in a room, stripped of responsibilities as a means of restoring her to health.

21st-century women may have pharmaceutical solutions for depression, but as “The Headless Woman” shows, they too are insulated in ways that might prompt the same kind of madness.  The film is concerned with Veró (María Onetto), the wealthy, pampered, middle-aged woman enmeshed in family, work, and home — until one day, as she drive home and is momentarily distracted by her cell phone, she hits something.  The camera pauses on her for a long time, watching her recover; when she finally pulls away, we see a dog dead on the road.  But there are now two ghostly little handprints on her driver’s side window.  Is a dog all she hit?

Though we don’t know what happened, we quickly realize that Veró is deeply affected by this event (does she have amnesia? a traumatic repression of the events? a dangerous concussion?), yet no one else notices.  With her blonde dye job and bland half-smile always plastered on, she can’t even go through the motions of her life — so it’s lucky she’s surrounded by servants, her husband, and her relatives, all of whom fail to register that anything’s wrong.  As we see everything through her eyes, we are as disoriented as she is.  Who is this man in the house — her husband or someone else?  Why is she here at the dentist’s office?  Every time she appears mildly bewildered, one of the many servants or men steps up to take things out of her hands, shepherd her to her next appointment, remove responsibility from her.

By the time she hesitatingly tells her husband that she fears she hit someone, he assures her that it can’t be true.  “It was just a scare,” he says patronizingly, unconvincingly.  With that apologetic little smile on her face, does she agree?  Or simply acquiesce?  In the meantime, she has nothing to do — her languid movements are only prompted by the random doorbell, a phone call, or the need to move out of someone’s way.  Cared for by an endless stream of working-class employees and paternalistic men, her life has little meaning or direction — so how can she bear responsibility? 

Perhaps it’s simply madness, an early version of the dementia her mother suffers from.  One day, in her mother’s bedroom, her mother rambles a bit, as she’s given to do.  But this time Veró begins to see her mother’s phantoms and generalized disorientation.  “Don’t look at him,” her mother says out of the blue.  “They’re … the house is full of them.  Shhh!  The dead.  They’re leaving now.  Don’t look at them.  Ignore them and they’ll leave.”  As a little boy gets up from under the bed and leaves the room — is he real, or is this the ghost of the little boy Veró might have killed? — her mother continues:  “I would have preferred modernity.  Here you move and everything squeaks.”

I can’t believe this film didn’t get more attention, that it wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award.  It’s a haunting, unsettling statement about the lives of women in a safely cushioned world, where madness lurks.