Wednesday, 1 June 2011



Directed by Natalia Smirnoff
Argentina/France 2010

The film’s opening sequence brilliantly shows María del Carmen’s (subtly underplayed by Maria Onetto) life. We see lots of running and bustling about. The main character with bunches of trays and platters is moving back and forth between the kitchen and the room full of guests, serving dishes, replacing missing chorizzo, pausing only to sweep broken plate. Its only after she brings out a cake featuring a big "50" in candles and blow them out, that we realize it is her own birthday.

After all that cooking, serving and cleaning up (unassisted, of course) Maria takes a look at the pile of gifts she’s received and discovers among them something that intrigues her: a jigsaw puzzle depicting Nefertiti, queen of ancient Egypt. She stays up the rest of the night piecing it together and makes an astonishing discovery: not only it's a soothing respite from her domestic duties but she's also extremely good at it. It seems like puzzle pieces just naturally come together for her, she simply has a knack for it. Overflowing with enthusiasm for her new-found talent, she goes back to the shop where her present was bought, a store that specializes in nothing but puzzles, to get another, more difficult ones (especially that her husband denied her a new puzzle when they were out shopping). Inside the shop she comes across an ad on the notice board: "Partner wanted for puzzle tournament" and, much to her own surprise, decides to respond to it. Which turns more complicated than we might think as there's only email address given and Maria, a suburban housewife, has never touched a computer.

Eventually, without letting her family know, she meets rich elderly bachelor Roberto (Arturo Goetz), who lives in an impressive mansion in town. Maria's raw talent hugely impresses him, he's enchanted by her anarchistic way of solving puzzles and unorthodox but rapid technique. Together they decide to enter puzzle tournament in Germany but first they must win the local one.

Fearing the reaction of her family, Maria is developing her hidden talent at nights and resorts to little lies so that she can train in peace with Roberto. When she decides to share the news about forthcoming tournament with her husband and sons, she's initially met with bewilderment and bemusement. But Maria is undaunted. Thanks to the puzzles not only she begins to free herself from mundane domestic routine but also reinvigorates her sense of self, looks at her life from a new perspective, and opens up for new possibilities, that so far could only be a dream for her.

Rather than a grand story of empowerment, “Puzzle” is simply about finding little pleasures in life. This delicate feature debut of Natalia Smirnoff, who has spend the last decade as assistant director and casting director for the likes of Pablo Trapero and Lucrecia Martel, presents humorous but insightful look at the housewife quietly finding her passion and asserting her independence. María Onetto, Argentina's best actress of recent times, has the perfect presence for the weary yet still striking María del Carmen, portraying her frustrations and small satisfactions in a exquisite way. Maria del Carmen is the kind of person utterly devoted to others and therefore taken for granted by her kids and husband. But it would be wrong to characterize Maria as completely meek. She’s chosen a life in response to her workoholic husband, who runs a small business, who expects Maria to remember to replenish his favorite cheese, rather than going to the store and getting the groceries himself. Surprisingly, under the influence of the simple thing like puzzle, something has changed and Maria's life transforms. It's hard to call it revolution, because in fact not much is different - Maria is still calm, focused and patient mother and wife. The new thing is that puzzles make her, and only her happy (“What’s the point of this?” asks her husband. “I like it,” responds Maria.) It's something that she's doing entirely for herself. Probably for the very first time in her life. She discovers completely new, unknown to her before emotions: satisfaction with herself, the joy of competition. But most of all, she discovers her own needs.

What's best in the movie and admirable about Smirnoff’s direction is the lack of simplification. Maria is not a passive and oppressed victim of domestic patriarchy, her husband is not a soulless macho, and their children are not selfish and self- obsessed. They all look for something that would give them happiness and belong only to them. Maria's husband, who spends all days behind the counter of his store, under the influence of his co-worker begins to attend classes of tai-chi. His serious explanation of the proper flow of energy at first is met with exactly the same dismay as when Maria told him about puzzle tournament. Elder son of Maria decides to work in a big company and rebels against linking his future with his father business. Younger attempts to embrace veganism and dreams of going to India to find himself. Everyone is trying to find a space for being themselves. It's very clear in Maria's case: she's on a different wavelength from her husband and kids, but the same goes for her relationship with the sophisticated Roberto. She doesn't truly fit in either world.

Natalia Smirnoff's debut film charms with simplicity and sincerity. If this movie teach us something is how important it is to learn what gives us joy, instead of trying to make happy everybody around. Only after we find it, making others happy makes sense. In a late moment in the film, Maria orders the family to help her clean out a spare room so that she can do puzzles there. And in this act of cleaning, the family begins to dance in a rather spontaneous way. Smirnoff’s optimistic suggestion is that the fun moments in life often happen when you help those who are close to you with their interests, however crazy or ordinary they may seem. And that it’s never too late for anyone to find this interest.

The story line in “Puzzle” is simple, yet deep. It's quiet and very subtle film, it is definitely recommended to viewers who can appreciate such qualities. And shame on those who can’t.