Two dispatches from the Catholic (or post-Catholic) front line, The Holy Girl and Don’t Move both deal in such venerable abstractions as vocation, redemption, and grace. The latter film, made in a seemingly Churchless Italy, is a parable of transgression and sacrifice that’s driven entirely by one man’s godlike ego. The former, set mostly in the humid environs of a shabby Argentine hotel, is more religious, both explicitly and implicitly. Yet rather than build to a transcendental moment, the film just sort of evaporates, leaving an aura that’s as powerful as it is elusive.

Like La Ciénaga, Lucrecia Martel’s first feature, The Holy Girl is set in the writer-director’s hometown of Salta. A medium-sized city in northwestern Argentina, Salta looks to be as much a pre– World War II time capsule as Buenos Aires, but more provincial. Perhaps that explains why 14-year-old Amalia (Maria Alché) is looking for a sign that she should get herself to a nunnery. The girl is introduced among a clutch of her peers, listening to their leader, a striking young woman, sing to her savior of her “extreme vileness.” Amalia and her best friend, Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg), meet often with the others, earnestly discussing “the call” and worrying over the harshness of certain human destinies that they attribute to God. Yet Josefina also entertains Amalia by whispering carnal gossip about their sanctimonious instructor as the woman exhorts them to spiritual awakening.

Most of the The Holy Girl is set at the shabby hotel run by Amalia’s mother, Helena (Mercedes Morán), where the two share a room. (The dubious quality of the hotel shampoo is a running gag.) For the week covered by the film, the place is occupied by a convention of otolaryngologists, including Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso). Jano and Amalia first meet at the hotel, where they both frequent the old-fashioned and musty-looking pool. They have their crucial encounter, however, on the street, where each stops to watch a man—first heard playing Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”—demonstrate the unearthly timbres of the theremin. Jano draws close to Amalia, touching her in a way that contemporary American parlance terms “inappropriate.” Amalia is ecstatic, although she’s not sure exactly why or how. Jano is “my mission,” she soon informs Josefina.

Back at the hotel, Amalia’s vague quest is complicated by her mother’s erotic interest in Jano, as well as by Jano’s own embarrassment at what he’s done. Amalia swears Josefina to secrecy, but when Josefina is caught in her own compromising situation, she tries to deflect attention from herself by blurting that a doctor “interfered” with her friend. This imprecise gossip percolates through the hotel, even as Jano is reluctantly preparing to act with Helena in a closing-night doctor/patient skit. (A former swimming champion, Helena really does have trouble with her ears.) Calling in the moral reinforcements, Jano persuades his wife and children to come to the hotel for the convention’s conclusion. This seems to set up a dramatic confrontation involving Amalia, Helena, Jano, and the doctor’s spouse, but The Holy Girl doesn’t end as any viewer would reasonably expect.

Slippery as the conclusion is, it’s of a piece with the rest of Martel’s tale. The director constructs the movie of short scenes that often end abruptly and are usually shot in tightly framed close quarters. It’s a style that simultaneously conjures intimacy and distance, suggesting the vantage point of an innocent passerby or an intentional (but still perplexed) eavesdropper. Shifting natural light and complex sound design further convey the transience and unreliability of what we’re seeing. It’s no accident that Martel—perhaps the dampest filmmaker since Andrei Tarkovsky—situates so much of the action in and around the pool. Water suggests not only baptism and the womb, of course, but also the evanescence of life and lust. Liquid perpetually ebbs and flows, just like cinematographer Felix Monti’s images.

Scrupulously low-key, The Holy Girl is a little difficult to recognize as a comedy. Certainly the director is not in the business of writing jokes or staging physical humor. And Alché’s personification of the feverish Amalia is so vivid, and so thoroughly intertwined with the film’s hothouse atmosphere, that she never becomes a figure of fun, even at her most overwrought. Martel observes her not with derision, but with empathy and gentle irony. She gives the impression that Amalia is someone she used to know quite well—so well, in fact, that she’s not prepared to reveal all her secrets.

Because Sergio Castellitto is the director, co-writer, and star of Don’t Move, the movie might seem a work of narcissism. But he has a co-conspirator: The film was adapted from a novel by and co-scripted with Margaret Mazzantini, Castellitto’s wife. Perhaps they both simply thought it was a hell of a part, but the film’s central character is so overbearing as to suggest that this is some sort of spiritual autobiography.

If so, it’s not a flattering one. Castellitto plays Timoteo, a well-established surgeon who’s seething under his crisp white physician’s jacket. Yet another overfated fable that turns on a crash, the film opens with a heaven’s-eye view of a street, a body, and an ambulance. The victim, it’s soon revealed, is Angela (Elena Perino), Timoteo’s mildly rebellious 15-year-old daughter. But most of the story occurs before Angela is conceived, figuratively as well as literally. The action flashes back and forward, with Timoteo’s hair and beard alternately blackening and graying as 16 years come and go. The younger Timoteo has urges, some of them uncontrollable; the older one has regrets, which range from wistful to lacerating.

From Angela’s motorbike accident, the story hops back to a relatively recent episode that establishes the family dynamic: When Elsa (Claudia Gerini, Pontius Pilate’s wife in The Passion of the Christ) attempts to discipline Angela for some infraction, Timoteo winkingly helps their daughter establish a phony alibi. The next transition is to a fateful auto breakdown in a shabby village on what is eventually established as the edge of Rome. (It looks like another world, or at least another age.) In need of a mechanic, the doctor asks to use the phone of a disheveled local sexpot, the half-Albanian (and thus ironically named) Italia (Penélope Cruz). As the hot day progresses and the local bartender convinces Timoteo that vodka is more refreshing than water, the doctor becomes disoriented and frantic. When he returns to Italia’s apartment to make another call, he abruptly rapes her. Italia resists but doesn’t seem too surprised.

This may not seem a promising start for a relationship, but Timoteo feels compelled to see Italia again, and she doesn’t object. (A part-time hotel maid with more eye shadow than self-esteem, Italia will eventually describe herself as a “weed.”) Timoteo is soon promising to leave his wife for her, a vow he seems to take seriously until the chilly, proper Elsa—who had previously rejected his suggestion that they have a child—announces that she’s pregnant. As the tale approaches its hysterical conclusion, the parallels multiply: Italia also becomes pregnant, which leads to a medical emergency that can be neatly intercut with Angela’s subsequent one. The results of these crises leave Timoteo’s domestic situation basically unchanged but give him a gift that’s more valuable than a life transformation: something else to brood about. Most of the songs that frame the doctor’s melancholy are in Italian, but it seems likely that their sentiments are similar to those of the one that’s in English: Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will.”

Timoteo’s maudlin self-absorption permeates the film and is harder to endure than Castellitto probably intended. (The actor was both more likable and more believable as the visiting theater director in Jacques Rivette’s wry Va Savoir.) Still, much of Don’t Move is brisk and artful. Cinematographer Gianfilippo Corticelli’s handheld camera whips through the scenes with a vigor that’s equally suited to rough sex and operating-room heroics, while editor Patrizio Marone’s jump cuts propel the film through time and between Timoteo’s wife and mistress. Mazzantini and Castellitto’s script is suitably novelistic, layered with detail and fluidly structured.

Although one of the better-made examples of the genre, Don’t Move is nonetheless a convenient-death flick. The three principal women in Timoteo’s world all exist simply to highlight his unhappiness, and any one of them could vanish at any time, simply to make his life better—or ennoblingly worse. Cruz battles to make the implausibly lowly Italia seem real, and it’s one of the best performances of her generally underwhelming career. But Italia is essentially an apparition, a vision of the Other that might—but won’t—transfigure Timoteo. In fact, nothing can, which is why Don’t Move is so irksome: No matter how much Castellitto the director tortures his female characters, the man played by Castellitto the actor remains motivated not by compassion but by self-pity.CP