After a decade as assistant director and casting director for the likes of Pablo Trapero and Lucrecia Martel, Natalia Smirnoff settles into the director’s chair with her delicate feature debut, “Puzzle.” A detail-oriented look at a housewife quietly asserting her independence through a puzzle tournament, this femme-skewed chamber piece is a low-key charmer for auds open to its honest subtleties, boosted in no small part by Maria Onetto’s beautifully modulated performance. The pic’s Berlin competish slot should spur moderate Euro sales, though critical support will be necessary if other pieces are to fall into place.
The opening segment perfectly captures the situation at home for Maria del Carmen (Onetto): We see closeups of a meal being made as she prepares for a large party, during which she serves the guests, takes veiled barbs from her mother-in-law and then brings out a cake featuring a big “50” in candles. Only then do auds realize it’s her own birthday. After cleaning up (unassisted, of course), she looks at her presents and starts doing a puzzle.
Maria del Carmen has reached a difficult moment: Her husband, Juan (Gabriel Goity), has his business and is eminently satisfied with his wife’s status as a loving drudge at home, while her two kids, Ivan (Julien Doregger) and Juan Pablo (Felipe Villanueva), are reaching the age where they’re moving out or otherwise preoccupied with their lives. Lacking any interests outside the home, Maria del Carmen needs a purpose again, or at least a passion.
Her first puzzle sparks an interest, and at a shop, she sees a flier from someone looking for a puzzle tournament partner. Without letting her family know, she meets rich bachelor Roberto (Arturo Goetz), who’s struck by her unorthodox but rapid puzzle-solving skills, and this old hand at competitions agrees to take her into training. In the coming weeks, Maria del Carmen tells her family she’s looking after a sick aunt — while she and Roberto do puzzles together at his mansion, where he opens her up to outside interests.
While story-driven, the pic knows it’s a slip of a tale, and Smirnoff’s success comes in the way she fills in her characters, signaling the dynamics at home in a clear but understated way. Maria del Carmen is taken for granted by her kids, and it’s ultimately difficult to decide whether Juan really loves his wife or just likes the comfort of knowing there’s a warm, devoted and willing body next to him in bed.
If Maria del Carmen is on a different wavelength from her husband and kids, the same goes for her relationship with the sophisticated Roberto. The point is, she doesn’t truly fit in either world, at least not until she’s able to assert a modicum of independence at home and find the happiness in herself that’s been lacking. Considering how close Smirnoff keeps the camera on her protag’s face, registering Onetto’s every shifting feature, it’s clear the helmer had absolute, and justifiable, trust in the thesp’s ability to get inside her character. Without overdoing the mousiness, Onetto (who starred in Martel’s “The Headless Woman”) combines an unsophisticated fragility with a strong core, and when she gets what she wants, there’s a radiance in her smile that fills the screen.
For the most part, Maria del Carmen’s world is shot with diffused, pale tonalities, matching the pallid colors of her clothes and skin. Roberto’s home appears slightly warmer, increasing the sense of escape into something comforting and rare. Ace d.p. Barbara Alvarez (“Whisky,” “The Headless Woman”) at times overdoes the shaky lensing, though it’s nothing out of the ordinary in this obsessively handheld age. Auds will be divided over whether the odd mouth-harp music detracts from or enhances the proceedings.