Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 New York Film Festival. Cinema Guild releases the film in select theaters on Friday, August 27.
For those unfamiliar with Matías Piñeiro’s beguiling series of post-modern Shakespeare riffs, “Isabella” probably isn’t the best place to start. Another sensual and freeform meditation on the subjectivity of the Bard’s women and the actresses who play them, the Argentinian filmmaker’s latest isn’t any more abstract than its predecessors “Viola,” “Hermia & Helena,” and “The Princess of France” (though it certainly isn’t any more accessible), but its inviting lushness and color are offset by a sense of finality, as if Piñeiro is reaching the end of a decade-long infatuation and looking for the strength to pull the ripcord.
His movies stubbornly resist the word “about” in all but the most abstract meaning of the word, but “Isabella” all but announces itself as a tale of uncertainty; an interest that it borrows from the Shakespearean “comedy” that possesses Piñeiro’s contemporary Argentinian women like a wandering spirit. Referred to as a “problem play” for the same tonal ambiguity that makes it such a logical solution for Piñeiro’s style, “Measure for Measure” is — in stark contrast to the oft-mischaracterized “Hamlet” — a story that hinges on someone who’s struggling to make up their mind. Someone who’s abstained from getting herself mixed up in the affairs of men and women, only to find that inaction has weight and consequences of its own.
Shakespeare’s text only informs this film in the broadest of strokes, but “Isabella” almost immediately confronts the idea that not doing something is still doing something, and perhaps a necessary first step towards doing something else. It begins with a swatch of deep color and a bit of narration that lingers in the mind like the legend of a map that Piñeiro never provides. “The color purple,” the voiceover announces over a periwinkle shot of the ocean during sunrise. “It’s both a heated red and a tinted blue. Fragility and strength at the same time… an opportunity for making decisions.” There’s also some talk of a ritual about throwing rocks into the sea, each stone representing a doubt; doubt stops you from hurling it away, or you pick up another stone and repeat the process. Whether you wind up holding on to something or find yourself emptyhanded, action has been taken — not doing something is still doing something.
What does that have to do with Mariel (Piñeiro muse María Villar), an actress in Buenos Aires who can never seem to catch a break? The answer is surprisingly obvious by the end of this pleasant jigsaw puzzle of a movie, which ends with an uncharacteristic clarity that makes you wonder if Piñeiro might leave confusion behind as he moves on to the next stage of his career. Wonder, and possibly also hope.
Cutting between multiple timelines with the casualness of putting one foot in front of the other, “Isabella” introduces Mariel — a prominent bump in the front of her blue dress — as she climbs the stairs to an audition for the Isabella role in a production of “Measure for Measure,” only to reintroduce her at a public swimming pool in the next shot — not pregnant, and in an ever-so-slightly different blue dress — at what seems to be a different time in her life. It’s there she has a run-in with Luciana (Agustina Muñoz, another mainstay of Piñeiro’s troupe), a more accomplished actress who once turned down the same part that Mariel is desperate to get. She’s slapped into a red swimsuit. The vibe between the two women is wary but not unkind, and it only grows more complicated once it’s revealed that Luciana is sleeping with Mariel’s married brother, who just so happens to be the tyrannical, Ivo van Hove-like director of the play. He almost never appears on screen, and yet the film is completely at the mercy of his favor (just as the penniless Mariel is at the mercy of his financial assistance).
At some point in what seems to be a happier future, we see a more self-reliant Mariel at work as an installation artist, and laboring to assemble a James Turrell-inspired piece that positions stones inside frames of purple light. In between these two anchor points in the film’s timeline are sinewy and repetitive scenes of Mariel and Luciana walking through an idyllic landscape, dwelling on their failures, and running “Measure for Measure” lines as they dip their feet in a stream. Whenever the film doubles back on itself — Piñeiro often returning to identical shots of his characters walking around Buenos Aires with the clenched uncertainty of an actor trying to remember their blocking — it evokes a yearning for reconciliation.
The yearning is clear, the nature of what needs to be reconciled less so. Mariel questions how to square her passions with her financial situation, and also impending motherhood with her own clouded self-responsibility, but Piñeiro’s fractured approach forbids a deeper psychological understanding. Does the process of “learning” Isabella leave Mariel with a stronger command of her own options? Possibly, but not with the sort of “eureka” logic that’s everywhere in movies and almost nowhere in life. Does it reflect the role that she’s been playing for her entire life, and illustrate the inflexible way that people tend to cast themselves? It’s there if you want it.
Piñeiro is more attuned to the rhythms of memory, and the inertia of moving forward in a world that (in some ways) offers more freedom than most of us know how to handle; more attuned to loops than arcs, and to the backdoor of a theater than its stage. “Isabella” is always in motion — it’s always pushing forward, even when it’s circling back. Piñeiro doesn’t contextualize scenes with establishing shots, but cuts right into them, locking this non-linear movie into an inexorable presentness that prevents any hints of fatalism from taking hold, even once you’ve managed to assemble the pieces of its scattered timeline into a clear picture. And that process will require the brunt of your energy.
Piñeiro’s cinema is too lush and vibrant to feel like work, but the catharsis he arranges for us here isn’t enough to offset how this film’s puzzle box approach disserves the subjective interiority that “Isabella” tries to solve with it. In many respects, this feels like an exercise that was 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.
“Isabella” feels like the work of someone staring into the glass of a two-way mirror and hoping to reconcile the fragility and strength he sees reflected back at him into a new resolve — it feels like the work of someone clawing at the cell walls of their comfort zone. Even fans of Piñeiro’s “Shakespeare-ida” (to borrow a helpful term that one academic has used to describe the filmmaker’s previous “encounters” with the Bard) might be glad to see that Piñeiro appears to escape by the end, if only in the hopes that he might go on to do something unexpected with the stone that’s still in his hand.
“Isabella” is screened virtually as part of the 2020 New York Film Festival.