Monday, May 23, 2011

The Pieces Fit: Smirnoff’s Puzzle

Being a mother and wife might be rewarding (mostly), but it is not exactly escapist fun, at least for one middle-aged suburban Buenos Aires homemaker. Yet, María del Carmen discovers a surprising new passion in Natalia Smirnoff’s Puzzle (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

Puzzle’s opening sequence brilliantly encapsulates the essence of María del Carmen’s life. She is serving everyone hand-and-foot at a birthday party, pausing only to piece together a broken plate. Any guesses whose birthday it is? Amongst the presents she eventually unwraps afterwards is puzzle of Nefertiti, which she fits together lickety-split, enjoying every minute of it. In a scene rendered with delicate sensitivity, viewers cannot help but notice a vague likeness between her and the Egyptian queen (whether it is intentional or not, hardly matters).

It seems like puzzle pieces just naturally come together for María del Carmen, in a way that is a soothing respite from her domestic duties. Of course, her husband just does not understand her new interest. However, Roberto, a wealthy competitive puzzle “piecer” and old bachelor appreciates her unorthodox technique (no starting with the borders for her) as well as her elegant charm. A former Argentine champion, he is convinced he can reclaim the national title from his former partner with María del Carmen, but then what?

Puzzle bears a certain thematic similarity to the not half bad Queen to Play. However, Smirnoff’s film is far subtler and much more restrained. Rather than a grand story of empowerment, Puzzle is simply about finding a room of one’s own.

María Onetto has the perfect presence for the weary yet still striking María del Carmen, portraying her frustrations and small satisfactions with exquisite nuance. She also establishes tangible chemistry with Arturo Goetz as Roberto. Indeed, their scenes together smartly crackle with sexual and class-based tensions. Unfortunately, Gabriel Goity is basically just a dumb clod as her husband Juan, without the benefit of much of a character development arc.

Aside from the problematic spouse, Puzzle’s parts fit together quite well into an intelligent and stylish whole. It is all effectively underscored by Alejandro Franov’s minimalistic music that often evokes puzzle pieces snapping together. A quiet and mature film, Puzzle is definitely recommended to viewers who can appreciate such qualities (and shame on those who can’t). It opens this Friday (5/27) in New York at the IFC Center.