Welcome to What to Watch! Every Friday, we'll tell you what’s worth your time and money in theaters or from the comfort of your own home. Whether it’s an indie pic, a documentary, a TV special, a Web series, or a new DVD release, we’ve got you covered. This week, we kick things off with a movie from down south—way south.
Argentina is known for many things and cinema is definitely one of them. Last year alone, they released something like 150 movies. Even their bad ones are still better than a lot of the commercial basura Hollywood sometimes releases.
Puzzle, directed by Natalia Smirnoff and starring three Argentine greats (Academy Award nominee Maria Onetto, Arturo Goetz, and Gabriel Goity) instantly charmed audiences when it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2010. IFC Films quickly scooped distribution rights at the fest, and it has finally released the film stateside (at the local IFC theater in New York as well as nationally via Sundance Selects video-on-demand).
The film tells the story of Maria del Carmen (Onetto), a forty-something housewife from Buenos Aires, whom everyone, including her husband and teenage sons, takes for granted. When she discovers her hidden talent for assembling puzzles, Maria starts to secretly train with a magnetic millionaire (Goetz) for the national championship. At the risk of alienating her family, Maria pursues her new passion, and comes into her own as she asserts her independence.
The film will likely connect with female audiences, particularly Latinas, who may see the central character as a reflection of that universal mother figure who sacrifices for everyone else, sometimes at the expense of herself. Smirnoff—who has worked as a casting director and first assistant director with some of Argentina’s greatest filmmakers (including Lucrecia Martel), says it’s no coincidence. “The character is somewhat inspired by my mother, who has this special gift that I call being happy in the happiness of others,” says Smirnoff, who is of Russian, Italian, Spanish, and Argentine descent. The talented director says she turns to assembling puzzles herself in times of crisis because she finds the process soothing. “I wanted Maria del Carmen to have a talent that has no social status attached to it,” she adds, “something that’s pretty useless, even ridiculous. That’s why in the beginning of the movie she resorts to lying about it; it’s like her own personal, sacred thing.”
Maria del Carmen is a complex, constantly evolving character, as is her husband, who must learn to adapt to his wife’s newfound independence. “The husband, Juan, is a really key figure in the movie,” says Smirnoff. “In many ways, he is a prisoner of his own, sexist culture. I really wanted to explore how, when Carmen transforms herself, so does the whole family, as a result. I wanted it to be a story about a home where there is genuine love, but with the everyday problems that life brings—because there’s no such thing as perfection. I wanted to stay away from the typical story of the broken home or the marriage where the couple is bored to death.”
Puzzle is liberating not only for the main characters, but for the viewer as well. And in the grand tradition of Argentine films, it’s really funny.
Check out these three other down-south classics:
El Hijo de la Novia (2001)
An Oscar-nominated comedy from Juan Jose Campanella, the same director who gave us 2009’s El Secreto de Sus Ojos. Stars the sexy and talented Ricardo Darin, one of the country’s marquee actors.
La Cienaga (2001)
Lucrecia Martel’s debut takes a look at one dysfunctional family during a hot summer in the Argentine countryside. It’s number 1 on Cinema Tropical’s “best Latin American films of the past decade” list, released last year.
Cama Adentro (2005)
A drama from Jorge Gaggero set in Buenos Aires during the economic crisis of 2000.
Watch the trailer for Puzzle below: