Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Sep 27, 2020 6:14 pm 
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In which the young Argentinian still proves opaque

Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro (previously reviewed here, Viola, ND/NF 2013, and The Princess of France, NYFF 2014) is not a director whose work I've liked. But I'm back again, because how can one dislike something based on Shakespeare? Perhaps I just didn't get it and need to try harder. This year's NYFF blurb says Piñeiro again refers to Shakespeare, this time to "anchor a loose yet intellectually rigorous examination of life’s loves," etc. This makes the last five out of his filmography of ten films, if we count shorts, where he has done something like this; this is his sixth feature. For tis one, after a detour to New York (where he now lives) for his last, Hermia and Helena - not reviewed here - Piñeiro returns to his native Buenos Aires, including some beautiful country scenes shot in Argentina's Córdoba Province.

But what makes it tricky is Pineiro isn't just riffing off a Shakespeare text, but doing that indirectly while focusing on actors auditioning or rehearsing, who of course have personal issues of their own. And he very much makes use of a small personal company of players and friends he has been using repeatedly in these films, which may lead to inside references and jokes. Regulars include María Villar and Agustina Muñoz as, respectively, Mariel, a teacher with stage aspirations, and Luciana, a more established actress. The focus shifts back and forth between the lead-up to a crucial audition and a time years later.

And then this time there is the thing of the colors and the stones. The film begins with a beautiful sunset where the sky is violet, red, purple. At one point the stones are used to refer to a tone, when acting or speaking. There is also a ritual of twelve stones that are thrown.

As David Erlich notes on IndieWire, Piñeiro eschews establishing shots here that would show us where we are, so it all seems to happen in a neutral present. "In many respects," writes Erlich, "this feels like an exercise that was [more?] important for Piñeiro to make than it is for us to see; playful but seldom fun, it’s the rare film so ensconced in its characters’ headspace that it doesn’t seem the least bit conscious of the fact that it’s being watched." Erlich thinks Piñeiro is ready to leave Shakespeare behind. Or at least he hopes so.

A writer for Criterion, Joshua Brunsting, calls Isabella "Easily the filmmaker’s most obtuse and elliptical work." If so, since that's been the problem all along, my choice to watch another of Piñeiro's similarly constructed movies seems like an ill fated one. Brunsting (I'd say) clarifies the film more than Erlich, in particular explaining the meaning of the constant moments showing color swatches and differently shaped stones, which partly refer to the main character Marion's later involvement in an art project similar to a color-and-light installation by James Turrell (the color compositions also very much resemble the work of Josef Albers). These represent different emotional tones. It's this film's "tonal and narrative shifts" that, Brunsting writes, make it a "densely layered work."

As we watch we clearly grasp, many times over given Piñeiro's habit of repetition, that Mariel (Maria Villar), who when initially seen is pregnant, as well as in need of funds, is in a kind of competition with Luciana (Agustina Munoz), a more successful actress who's involved with Mariel's estranged brother (Guillermo Solovey, relatively only glimpsed here), who is putting on the production of Measure for Measure in which Mariel would like to win a role. And as is gradually and repeatedly made clear, Luciana gets the role of Isabela (Isabel in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, which is being put on in Spanish). Mariel renounces acting, and later, is involved in art projects.

The key scene in the play, shown only once in an audition with Mariel, comes when she stands before a judge who offers to release her brother if she will give herself to him. But Mariel's brother, who reads the judge's part in her audition, gives the role to Luciana.

As I have said before, a Piñeiro film works very well for professors or students to analyze, but not so well to watch. In a recent Brooklyn Rail interview with Piñeiro by Jessica Dunn Rovinelli, it's obvious he has only a vague idea what the colors and the stones mean, though he has external reasons for using them. He admits he knows very well where every segment in the time-shuffled film fits in the chronology, but he doesn't mention the viewer. For the editing, Piñeiro says it was "a little bit like doing a puzzle." He admits he tackled a jigsaw puzzle of a Jackson Pollock painting and "failed big time."

This time I watched Piñeiro's film and didn't try too hard to follow it. I just sat back and let the copious dialogue wash over me, enjoying the walks in the grasses of Córdoba Province and the play with colors and light, especially purple. The color, Piñeiro tells Brooklyn Rail, helps relax you. Otherwise, it's a Jackson Pollack jigsaw puzzle.

Isabella, 80 mins., debuted at Berlin Feb. 2020, showed at IndieLisboa in Aug., and was screened for this review as part of the Sept. 17-Oct. 11, 2020 virtual and drive-in New York Film Festival where it showed starting Sept. 24.

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