Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Puzzle (Rompecabezas)

Finding The Pieces To Fit Family, Friendship, Food And Middle-Age Together

María Onetto (center) as María del Carmen in "Puzzle" (Rompecabezas), directed by Natalia Smirnoff. 
IFC Films

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                  
Tuesday, September 6
, 2011

Beautiful, rich and bursting with sensuality and enchantment, Natalia Smirnoff's "Puzzle", a drama from Argentina, is a vivid, intimate adventure of middle-age and discovery via jigsaw puzzle-solving, a hobby that becomes much more to an Argentina housewife (played by María Onetto) who has just turned 50.  Ms. Onetto, so memorable in Lucretia Martel's "The Headless Woman", gives a quiet, wonderfully nuanced performance as María del Carmen, a mother, wife and baker who cooks up delicious, mouthwatering foods for her husband and two sons, who are loving and appreciative but take her for granted.

At her 50th birthday party María makes a wish.  Later she drops a plate and looks for its pieces.  This symbolic breaking of domesticity propels her to take up puzzle-solving as a pastime, bolstered by a birthday gift of a jigsaw puzzle set.  She studies.  She buys more puzzles, and is great at solving them.  María takes days out of a week to practice for a puzzle-solving tournament with puzzle maestro Roberto (Arturo Goetz).  Meanwhile, María's interest in puzzles is scorned and upbraided by her spouse Juan (Gabriel Goity).

"Puzzle" is a showcase of identity and belonging and asks us where María fits in life and her numerous occupations.  Parts of Ms. Onetto's body are glimpsed as if puzzle pieces of their own: her neck, feet, legs, ankles, knees, face, eyes, hands and fingers.  These shots are different sides of María, puzzle pieces of her multifaceted life as a woman, wife, mother, baker, lover and friend.  The shot-making in "Puzzle" is a distinct recipe in its own right, in direct contrast to Ms. Martel's drama, where Ms. Onetto's character's head was constantly truncated and whose body was often in silhouette or shadow. 

Ms. Smirnoff's film is about ingredients, the journey to completion and the spices that form feminine existence and its often inherent conflict or tension with a male-dominated society.  In a sexist, chauvinistic world María is expected to cook, clean and play second fiddle to the desires of her sons, one of whom wants to go to India.  "Puzzle" isn't a political drama but the politics of sex, sexism and gender roles exist.  There are allusions to Nefertiti, the ancient Egyptian ruler queen who made religious reforms that were not well received by men.  The film, gentle and aspirational, forges a link between María and Nefertiti, as much isolated figures as silent warriors.

Though often claustrophobic with its array of tight shots and aggressive physicality, "Puzzle", aka its original title "Rompecabezas", takes time to smell the roses and aromas of life, transition and beauty and witnesses the awakening of a middle-aged woman whose potential is greater than the present existence she enjoys.  María wants and yearns for more, and makes reforms in quiet, affirmative ways.  She wants to take her rightful place in the world as a full-blooded person, and measures herself up to Nefertiti.  Puzzles round out and insert her into the center of her own life, and not solely in the lives of the men she cooks or practices for.  "Puzzle" is a sweet daydream, one of the year's best and most heartfelt enjoyments.

Filled with joy, warmth and a tinge of tragedy and melancholy, "Puzzle" is an exciting archaeological story of a woman tapping into a broader identity to unearth greatness as a builder of family, foundation and love.  The jigsaw puzzle is a metaphor for the true picture of who María is or could be, one that may never fully materialize or which she may be forced to relinquish.  Ms. Smirnoff directs and adoringly frames Ms. Onetto in the center of a flavorful, pungent and organic exploration and achieves a sexy, passionate and memorable film that is a feast for the senses -- easily the year's most sensual.  The final image is a complete picture of a woman who breathes freely.

(Opens in San Francisco on Friday at the S.F. Film Society New People Cinema.)

With: Henny Trayles, Felipe Villanueva, Julian Doregger, Nora Zinsky, Marcela Guerty, Mirta Wons, Mercedes Fraile, Denise Groesman, Jimena Ruiz Echazu.

"Puzzle" (Rompecabezas) is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America.  The film contains sensuality.  The film is in the Spanish language with English subtitles.  The film's duration is one hour and 29 minutes.

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