Directed by Lucrecia Martel, starring Mercedes Morán, Carlos Belloso, Alejandro Urdapilleta, Maria Alché, Julieta Zylberberg.

South America has proved a fertile hunting ground for the more broad-minded film fan in recent years. 'Amores Perros', 'City of God', 'Y Tu Mamá También', 'The Motorcycle Diaries' – all thoughtful and intelligent films which also copped the fact that people want to be entertained.

But 'The Holy Girl' is unlikely to find such a wide audience. Selected for the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Lucrecia Martel's effort is a strange proposition. It's slow and ponderous, its cultural references are restrictive in the broader context, and it's ultimately rather questionable. Even Cannes audiences were lukewarm.

Amalia (Alché), 16, lives with her divorcee mother and her family in a run-down hotel in urban Argentina. Steeped in Catholicism and its accompanying notions of sin and guilt, Amalia spends much of her time in church group discussions on religious vocations. However, her concentration is dominated more by her own sexual awakening, and that of her best friend, the impish Josefina (Zylberberg).

It's the thread on which 'La Nina Santa' hangs that creates a house of cards on which the film eventually unravels. Amalia's hotel is being used for a medical convention, with doctors of all ages assembling for what some see as work, and others see as pleasure.

One of the medics, the middle-aged and inscrutable Dr Jano (Belloso), takes advantage of a gathered throng in a street to rub himself sexually against Amalia. To most people, it's a disgusting and inexcusable action; here, however, writer and director Martel muddies the moral waters by teasing out the consequences with troubling ambivalence.

Female adolescent sexuality, sin, guilt, redemption, these are all heavy themes to tackle. But to expect an audience to accept that a girl would confuse what is, in effect, mild sexual violation with a religious epiphany is simply ludicrous. Teens are impressionable, but in the modern age, they are also cannier than portrayed here. And although moralising on any issue should not be the preserve of filmmakers, it's still difficult to view 'The Holy Girl' without some cynicism.

On the plus side, the performances are excellent across the board, the mood and atmosphere is meticulous, and the film has an elusive quality that is impossible to define.

Yet such a 'big issue' film should leave you thinking for days. 'The Holy Girl' doesn't, and there, ultimately, lies its biggest failing.

Tom Grealis