It begins – and ends – at the beginning.
The latest film from writer/director Gonzalo Calzada, whose previous Resurrection has proven Argentina’s most watched horror, Luciferina opens with a CG representation of a spermatozoon fertilising an egg – and it (literally) climaxes with a ‘big bang’, and the cycle of new beginnings continuing. It is also the first instalment in a projected film saga, ‘The Virgin Trilogy’. The film’s protagonist Natalia (Sofía Del Tuffo) is herself a virgin. A 19-year-old novice with a strange gift of second sight, Natalia departs her distant convent and reenters the world after being informed of her mother’s sudden death. Back home she finds her father injured, bedridden and mute, and her student sister Ángela (Malena Sánchez) hoping both to heal the trauma of a recent abortion, and to find out more about the mysterious circumstances of their childhood, through a shamanic ritual.
Though prim and self-cloistered, Natalia is clearly in conflict with herself, torn between her spiritual vocation and her yearning for more worldly pleasures. You can see it in her exploratory attempt at masturbating in the shower, and in her tentative (and then not so tentative) puff on her sister’s cigarette – and especially in the way that she agrees, uncharacteristically, to join Ángela and her fellow students for the Shamanic rite, despite being at least half-aware that it is both pagan sacrament and psychotropic binge. So begins Natalia’s own rite of passage, in an isolated river location whose history – a one-time abbey turned into a place of illegal abortions and rumoured devil worship – both reflects her own inner contradictions, and has long been in her dreams. Indeed, when Natalia arrives on the island, she is certain she has been there before, and shares its history.
Motifs of conception and birth are encoded everywhere here. There is the etymology of Natalia’s name, the thematic recurrence of abortion and rape, and the decidedly Fallopian configuration of the grotesque paintings left behind by the sisters’ late mother or even of the peculiar crucifix given to Natalia. Natalia is naturally drawn to the sickly Abel (Pedro Merlo), a considerate boy and the only other virgin in the group – but once they have all drunk the ayahuasca (a native drug whose effects are associated with rebirth), past truths will emerge and true identities will be revealed,
Luciferina is a horror film that confounds polarities, taking conventional oppositions – Christian vs pagan, angel vs devil, good vs evil – and merging them into a complex, potent unity. It is long and somewhat repetitive, and comes with too much exposition at the end for this viewer’s tastes – but it guides us, along with its characters, on a heady trip through the layered history, ancestry and spirituality that Argentines carry within, if not always consciously, right from the beginning.