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

review “Headless Woman” (La mujer sin cabeza) a complex head-tripper from Argentina, San Francisco Film Society, September 18-24, 2009

María Onetto is Verónica in Lucretia Martel's newest film "The Headless Woman"

María Onetto is Verónica in Lucretia Martel's newest film "The Headless Woman"

Somehow, the corpse always surfaces at the most inconvenient moment.  In Lucretia Martel’s newest film “The Headless Woman,” we are given a puzzle—there is a hit and run accident in rural Argentina…but what, or who, was hit isn’t clear.  We are then slowly fed the pieces in scenes that are richly layered with clues but, even then, they do not add up to coherency, rather frustration.  A corpse surfaces–an indigenous child.   The woman driving has lost her head, better said…her memory fails her because it is just too hard to look.  At its core, the film is a metaphor for the country of Argentina and its convenient miasma around the lost generation of those who protested the dictatorship and went missing.  If you block something out, does it mean you didn’t do it?  If you clean up all the evidence, does it mean it didn’t happen at all?   In Martel’s film, issues of class and social responsibility cloud what seem obvious answers to those of us who have an absolutist sense of justice.

 The film is set in the same region of northwestern Argentina, near Salta, as Martel’s previous two films, “La Ciénaga” and “The Holy Girl.”  The movie opens with four indigenous boys and a dog playing in a deep canal that runs along a stretch of isolated rural highway.  A car is heard in the distance and the kids scamper.  Verónica  or “Veró,”(María Onetto), is a put-together 40ish bottle blonde—her hair communicates immediately who she is and what class she is from.  She is driving along in her Mercedes on this rural road and her cell-phone rings and, as she reaches for it, she hits something and is jerked abruptly in her car.  Rattled, she stops the car.  Just when it seems natural to glance back in the mirror to see what she has run over, she instead puts on her dark sunglasses and doesn’t look back at all.  The afternoon glare reveals  two mysterious small hand prints on the driver’s window of her car.   A camera shot to the back reveals a mass in the road, like a big animal or a body.  Veró continues driving and then stops because her car is being pelted by heavy rain.  A big storm is starting to unleash itself. 

 She is next seen in a medical clinic for the poor, getting her head x-rayed and acting very disoriented.  She leaves abruptly when she is identified as the sister of a doctor.  She then proceeds, disconnectedly, to a spartan hotel room where she meets her lover, Juan Manual (Daniel Genoud).  Once at home, after more  disconnected behavior, she tells her husband Marcos (César Bordón) that she thinks she hit something, a dog.  She worries increasingly that it might have been someone, not something, and finally tells Marcos that she thinks she killed someone.  He tries to convince her that, in the heavy storm, it could have been anything.  She says she had the accident before the storm.  Her car is badly dented.  Her lover, Juan Manual, who it turns out is a cousin of her husband, arrives and agrees to use his connections to see if there have been any accidents by the roadside.  He tells them not to worry and receives a report back–no.  

But a week later, as Verónica and family members are driving on the same road, they come upon a crew dredging the canal, which has filled with water from the storm.  A body has been found blocking a pipe and the smell causes them to roll up their windows.   The corpse has surfaced.  At the same time, a buried fountain or pool has been unearthed at the edge of Veró’s garden by her landscaper—a dual metaphor for the pool of blood that once flowed in Argentina, was buried but later unearthed and for what is unfolding in this upperclass family.

As the film moves forward, we become less sure of Veró’s credibility.  Martel keeps the action focused solely on her, so we have no context, no way to sort this out than to study her.  We begin to wonder if it’s an act and she knows exactly what has happened (in the way she keeps her lover separate from her husband) or if she has sommoned her amnesia as a means of  convincing herself that she is not at all connected to what transpired.  

As more time passes,Veró relaxes back into her comfortable life as a dentist and even volunteers to treat impoverished school children with dental problems.  As she councils their parents, we see the huge divide between the classes in this country.  She is respected, has some power, and seems above reproach.  She dyes her hair dark brown, signaling her tacit complicity to try to put what happened as a blonde behind her.   

When she returns back to the hospital to pick up her x-rays, and clean up any trail, there is no record of them having been taken.  When she goes to the hotel, where she met Juan Manuel, she finds there is no record of her having been in the room or at the hotel.   The men in her life have apparently protected her by erasing any evidence of her whereabouts the day of the accident; even the car has been repaired in a distant city, leaving no connection to her. 

 Near the end of the film, two of the boys from the opening scene reappear as assistants to a landscaper that Verónica has hired.  When she learns later that one of the boys did not show up for work and later,  that his body was found, she seems worried.   Has fate brought this boy into her life after she has tried so hard to distance herself from the accident?  To assuage herself, she offers the surviving boy some food, a bath and a bag of used t-shirts to pick-over.

 Nothing is certain in this disturbing film as clues are dropped about a crime that is never solved—all that is made clear is that Verónica is from a family and a social class that has the means to make it all disappear on the surface.  Interestingly, not knowing,  leaves those of us who are compulsive to keep churning over the pieces we have been fed.  Martel said in an interview with Chris Wisniewski  “Like my other films, The Headless Woman doesn’t end in the moment that the lights go up, it ends one or two days later.”  

 Screens Sundance Kabuki Theatre, September 18-24, 2009: 1:45 pm, 4:20 pm, 7:15 pm, 9:25 pm.  Saturday and Sunday matinees at 11:25 am

September 18, 2009 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment