Geneva Anderson digs into art

Natalia Smirnoff’s engaging feature debut “Puzzle” showcases María Onetto as a 50 year-old wife who finds herself in jigsaw puzzles, opens Friday, September 9, 2011, at San Francisco Film Society

In Natalia Smirnoff’s richly-layered debut feature film Puzzle,  we are given a puzzle to solve―and it’s age old―how does a marginalized middle-age woman living  in a traditional society like Argentina achieve personal empowerment?   Ironically, the answer is found in puzzles.  María del Carmen (played by María Onetto, star of Lucretia Martel’s  The Headless Woman ) is 50-year-old  housewife in Buenos Aires  who has sunk so far into the complacency and safety of her married and family life that she no longer exists.  At what might be considered a pivotal moment, her 50th birthday, through quickly piecing together a broken dinner plate, she discovers that she has an aptitude for solving puzzles and that this simple act gives her pleasure.   For María, who has nothing outside of her family which is truly her own accomplishment, this realization is pivotal.  

One of María’s birthday presents is a complex jigsaw puzzle of Queen Nefertiti, which she solves quickly.  Once whet, her appetite for puzzles grows to the point of fixation, and that fixation is all-consuming, causing her to focus less on her husband Juan (Gabriel Goity) and two teen sons, Juan Pablo (Felipe Villaneuva) and Iván (Julián Doregger), who have traditional expectations about her being there to meet their needs and care for them.  Uncharacteristically, she begins to tell lies so that she can pursue her new interest―evolving from white lies that get her to a specialized puzzle shop to a whopper about caring for a sick aunt.  All this covering up occurs because she is just not able to ask for the space to meet her own need for enjoyment.  As María goes increasingly underground with puzzling, she responds to an ad for a puzzle partner and meets a wealthy gentleman named Roberto (Arturo Goetz) who is looking for someone to practice with weekly for the national heat.  If won, that would earn them a free ticket to Germany to represent Argentina in the world championship.  Roberto immediately recognizes María’s talent and tells her that, while she has a completely unorthodox approach to selecting and arranging pieces, it works and he’s fine with it.  They agree to meet at his place once a week to practice.  With his acceptance and encouragement, she blossoms in almost imperceptibly small, but real, steps―from choosing among new teas to reading a book about ancient Egypt that Roberto loans her and to impressing his upper-crust puzzle-solving friends.  His nurturing of her as an individual and ability to see her outside of her traditional role make all the difference.  But Roberto is only human and he occasionally makes a small pass at her which she outwardly ignores but which raises issues about the true nature of this mentor-pupil dynamic.

Her husband Juan is thoughtfully constructed―he is traditional but loving, he desires her sexually, and has done his best to try to create a happy family life with her and their two sons, but his vision is limited.  Both he and Maria are guilty, as are most of us, of slipping into the routine of life and getting stuck in patterns that come to define us.  As Roberto shines a new light on María, and she decides to live a little, she slowly changes and so do those around her, coming to see that mom has found a missing piece in her life and they are really no worse for it.   

The film is completely anchored in María Onetto’s masterfully understated and mysterious María.  Natalia Smirnoff first worked with Onetto when she was a casting director and selected her for the lead in Lucretia Martel’s  Headless Woman (see ARThound review), selected for Cannes in 2008.   That film also entails a puzzle―a hit-and-run accident in Argentina―but what or who was hit isn’t clear.  The upper-class woman driving is played by Onetto, who is protected by the influential men around her, and her actual culpability is never determined.  Nothing was certain in that film and viewers were left to contemplate the pieces they were fed.  Puzzle is a less expansive film and instead of addressing the larger scope of Argentina’s miasma around its missing, it subtly addresses issues of self-empowerment and actualization through the mirror of sexual inequality in Argentina’s middle class.  The camera work is done largely with a handheld and, like the plot, is tightly focused on Onetto who through her quiet expressions slowly feeds us important pieces of her tentative self.  

Puzzle, (Rompecabezas, Argentina/France, 2010) Written and Directed by Natalia Smirnoff.  Photographed by Barbara Álvarez.  With María Onetto, Gabriel Goity, Arturo Goet, Henny Trailes, Felipe Villanueva, Julian Doregger, Nora Zinsky.  Runtime: 89 min.  In Spanish with subtitles.  Distributed by Sundance Selects.

Details:  Puzzle screens September 9–15, 2011 at the San Francisco Film Society’s  new theatrical home, SF Film Society | New People Cinema, 1746 Post Street (Webster/Buchanan), San Francisco, CA.  Showtimes: 2:45, 5:00, 7:10, 9:15

Thursday, September 22, 2011, The San Francisco Film Society will celebrate the official Grand opening of San Francisco Film Society | New People Cinema with an evening of special screenings and an open house reception.  For the first time in the organization’s 54 year history, it will be able to offer year-round programming and all in the stylish state-of-the-art 143 seat theatre located in the  equally stylish and contemporary New People building at 1746 Post Street.   The theater features the finest analog and digital equipment, perfect sight lines and immersive THX-certified surround sound.  Amenities in the surrounding neighborhood include plentiful parking and numerous restaurants.

September 8, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment