Sunday, March 24, 2013

ND/NF ’13: Viola

Chris Dodd probably will not be blurbing this film, considering two of the major characters run a business illegally downloading music and movies for clients.  It might not exactly run to Harold Bloom’s tastes either, even though it is sort-of kind-of uses Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as a jumping off point.  Unfortunately, the Bard’s language is more prominent than the spirit of his classic comedy in Matías Piñeiro’s postmodern riff Viola (trailer here), which screens as a selection of this year’s New Directors/New Films, co-presented by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Frankly, it is hard to imagine a bad production of Twelfth Night.  Trevor Nunn’s 1996 film adaptation is an underappreciated jewel.  New Yorkers have also been blessed with many memorable stage productions, including Julia Stiles’ luminous turn in the 2002 season of Shakespeare in the Park and the Pearl Theatre’s characteristically elegant 2009 staging.  Considering it boasts separated twins, mistaken identity, cross-dressing, star-crossed love triumphant, and the humbling of authority, if Twelfth Night doesn’t work for you, you’re on your own.  Yet, Piñeiro incorporates almost none of this rich but frothy material into his contemporary collection of intersecting Altmanesque characters.

There is indeed a Shakespeare production being mounted here, but instead of Twelfth Night it is sort of a greatest hits compendium.  At least, we will hear Viola carrying Duke Orsino’s message of love to Lady Olivia, in the guise of his trusted page boy.  In fact, we will hear the scene over and over. For contemporary audiences, the gender-bending aspects of Twelfth Night take on added significance and this is largely what Piñeiro latches onto.  After witnessing the performance, we then watch the actress playing Olivia helping a prospective new Viola rehearse her lines.  However, this new Viola gets a bit carried away by Shakespeare’s words of amour.

As she bids a hasty retreat, Piñeiro shifts his attention to the real title character.  Although not yet part of the ensemble, several associations link Viola to their circle.  While making her bootleg deliveries, she encounters two cast-members who recruit her for the production, even as they belittle her passive approach to life.  Arguably, Viola the modern day Buenos Aires Bohemian is more like her Shakespearean namesake’s twin brother Sebastian, who essentially has wedded bliss with a high-born lady handed to him on a silver platter.  Piñeiro’s Viola has even fallen in with a pirate, so to speak.

Viola the film ends with a jam, which is cool.  Unfortunately, the sixty some minutes it takes to get there are a bit of chore.  Piñeiro’s variations on his theme quickly become repetitive and provide little to emotionally engage viewers.  Cerebral and maddeningly self-conscious, Viola is more like the anti-Twelfth Night.  It screens this Wednesday (3/27) and the Walter Reade Theater and this Friday (3/29) at MoMA.