Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Natalia Smirnoff's PUZZLE -- a piece of liberating joy from Argentina


The first thing we see in PUZZLE are hands kneading dough. Bread is being made for a big family gathering, turkey roasted and appetizers prepared. The woman at the center of all this, María del Carmen, we slowly discover, has been placed in an extremely put-upon position -- by her husband, children, other relatives and probably even her friends (though we see less of them; this movie is all about family -- and family-liberation). That initial scene -- the preparation and then the meal -- is so skillfully written and directed by Natalia Smirnoff that reams of information are handed to us with literally no exposition. It's all  "show" and no "tell" -- and yet we learn one hell of a lot about the family dynamics, and particularly about the character of María del Carmen.

María is played by the grand and versatile Argentine actress María Onetto, shown below and last seen here as the star of Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman.  This is a performance -- were international films seen more widely internation-ally (particularly here in the USA) -- that would win every award in the book. As would the film itself, if the time ever comes when subtlety and gradation are prized above pomposity and overkill. Ms Smirnoff, shown at left, who has worked for more than a decade as a second-unit or assistant director and as a casting director, has clearly learned her lessons and so gets almost everything right in this, her first film.

Smirnoff's main character is often literally surrounded by men (husband, kids, even a "mentor" who shows up later in the movie). Probably via a combination of choice, chance and cultural heritage, María has come to take care of those in her family in such a way that they need do almost nothing for themselves, at least where home and hearth are concerned. When a birthday present proves to be something she enjoys and is actually very good at, her life begins to change slowly and definitively.

For those who saw the recent Queen to Play, this film will ring all kinds of similar bells, content-wise. Both films are about a woman who discovers a gift and an intellectual pursuit/passion that changes her, and by extension those closest to her. Both films are decidedly feminist but neither are in the least anti-male. Yet the films are also very different. As Argentinian as Queen is French (or maybe as Hispanic as the other film is European), in Puzzle, everything from the climate to the location, the fashion to the decor, and the game involved -- chess vs puzzles -- is quite different. You would never mistake one movie for the other nor will you have any trouble, years down the road, remembering each quite fondly.

As much as I loved Queen to Play (and I did), Puzzle is the better film. Richer, full of small but meaningful surprises, and a deep, abiding understanding of and concern for family dynamics and change -- with performances that rise beautifully to every occasion -- this is high art rendered on a small canvas. In addition to Ms Onetto, who is moment-to-moment perfection, Gabriel Goity is masterful as her confused, macho but loving husband, and in the role of mentor is one of Argentina's finest actors Arturo Goetz (above, right), who brings such effortless  intelligence and class to his role that this adds immeasurably to the quiet emotional suspense that the movie builds.

Oh, yes, there is one minor moment that rings false. While toasting, our puzzle players clink glasses and get a full, rich tone from the sound -- dubbed in, I fear -- of the crystal touching. Yet they are holding the bowl of the glass rather than the stem -- and so would never be able to produce such a lovely ringing sound. Ms Onetto's character would not know this, but Goetz's surely would. And, as writer and director, Ms. Smirnoff should. No matter. In the end, Puzzle delights, surprises and moves us in equal proportion. All the burnishing in the world could not make this little gem shine any brighter.

The movie -- via Sundance Selects, 88 minutes, un-rated and in Spanish with English subtitles -- opens Friday, May 27, in New York at the IFC Center and will be available via VOD, beginning today, May 25.

2 comments:

Richard Katzev said...

Do you know if this film can be streamed? Thank you for your fine review. It's a film I'm eager to see.

Richard Katzev
rkatzev@teleport.com

James van Maanen said...

Thanks, for your comment, Richard. I would have thought that PUZZLE would have been available via Netflix by now (it's already three years old) -- but no, you can only SAVE it to your NF queue. (The more people who hit "save," the more likely is Netflix to get it.) Otherwise, you might contact the folk at Sundance Selects (which was the U.S. distributor of the film) via its parent company, IFC Films (here's the link:
www.ifcfilms.com )
to ask where else you might stream it (MUBI, Fandorm, FilmBuff, etc.). This is such a fine little movie, it's a shame it is not more readily available.