A Stone's Throw
By James Wham

NYFF:
Isabella
Dir. Matías Piñeiro, Argentina, Cinema Guild

Four rectangles cascade toward the center of the screen. Like Matryoshka dolls, they envelop one another in layers, becoming smaller and smaller, each one framing the next. Each has its own unique color, all of them quietly shifting hue. Beginning bright and lapis-like, then darkening, the different pigments slowly amalgamate, settling into a single shape and color. Their borders disappear. All that's left is “purple”—the color, an unseen voice tells us, of “ambiguity” and “equilibrium.”

This is the strange image that begins Matías Piñeiro’s latest film, Isabella. In a narrative structure that might best be described as “atemporal,” we’re given hints as to what this image really is—brief, intermittent scenes of a woman painting, arranging colored squares, cutting, gluing, crafting. We eventually come to recognize these shapes as a kind of art installation, a piece of set design for a new play written by Mariel (María Villar). She has created an illusion: a series of white cardboard rectangles with fluorescent lights fitted to the back, descending in size from the front of the stage. By manipulating the color of the light, the rectangles come and go from our visual field. They blur, they stand apart, they alter one another.

The play, much to the surprise of those familiar with Piñeiro’s work, is not a Shakespeare adaptation. It’s barely a play at all. For Mariel, it represents a rejection of traditional theater, and acting especially. There are no performers, for example, “only stones,” as well as a short film projected in the center-most rectangle of the stage. Mariel has become disillusioned with acting. Over the course of the film’s nonlinear, two-year timespan, she is goaded by friends and family to audition for the role of the novitiate nun Isabella in an ongoing production of Measure for Measure. She competes for the part with Luciana (Agustina Muñoz), who was initially cast but had to quit, and who later wins back the role only to quit again. Throughout, Luciana befriends Mariel and is an avid supporter of her auditioning. And though she is devoid of any malice or cruelty in doing so, the process nevertheless diminishes Mariel—she begins, as Piñeiro figures quite literally, to feel invisible.

Villar and Muñoz are a recurring duo in Piñeiro’s films, seen together most recently in Hermia & Helena. They are two of the regular players who populate “Las Shakespeareadas,” Piñeiro’s series of female-focused films that draw loosely from Shakespeare’s plays. As with any work of adaptation, there’s a tendency to guess at characters or story elements in terms of an exact translation—which of the girls is actually Isabella, you might ask, who is the villain, who is Angelo? But Piñeiro doesn’t work like that. For his films, you’d do better to consider the rectangles.

Isabella has films within films, plays within plays, and people within people. As in its central mise en abyme—the rectangle within a rectangle within a rectangle—Piñeiro creates an abyss of rhyme and recurrence. His mode of adaptation works reflexively, where these layers upon layers lead to a sense of collapse. In terms of acting, an art form central to Piñeiro’s oeuvre and the necessary bridge between theater and film, this works to expose performance as a kind of paradox—the idea that an actor is creating a lie only by stirring some truth within themselves; their body must necessarily belong to the character, and vice versa. When Mariel begins the audition process, she is asked questions that relate to Isabella: Do you have any siblings? What would you do for them? (The central problem of Measure for Measure is that Isabella must sleep with Angelo in order to save her brother’s life.) Ironically, the man asking her these questions is in fact her brother, though she is meant to keep this connection a secret. She asks: “So you want me to act?”

The audition also requires that Mariel perform a monologue taken from events in her own life, ideally related to “fraternity.” She chooses a scene in which she asks her other, older brother for money. Later in the film we see this happen for real—though “real” is precarious here. It may be that Mariel is simply rehearsing, or perhaps this is a repetition, something Mariel has done many times before. When Mariel actually performs the monologue, she does so in what can only be described as an interrogation room. The director and Angelo-actor communicate via a lone speaker, hiding behind a two-way mirror, invisible. As a result, Mariel ends up bargaining with her own reflection.

The mirror, like the cinema screen itself, is another of those rectangles that reflect and refract the story in all its many folds. Seemingly every element of Isabella is doubled or tripled, sometimes losing its shape altogether. This is especially true for time: Piñeiro cuts relentlessly across different moments in these women’s lives—Luciana is walking, Mariel is painting, then suddenly they’re hiking together; they seem warm and friendly, now they’re distant and cold. Piñeiro thankfully provides a temporal anchor in the form of Mariel’s pregnancy, which offers recurring clues for where we are in the story. The pregnancy also alters Villar’s onscreen affect. In previous Piñeiro films, Villar often feels small and light, whereas here she arrives heavy and burdened. She announces her age at the audition as “38,” and there is a sense of separation from her previous selves—yet again playing an actor, but this time nearing the end of her tether, thinking perhaps it might be time to give up.

Self-doubt is one of the things Piñeiro borrows most explicitly from Measure for Measure. In preparing for her audition, we hear Mariel attempt to translate the following: “Our doubts are traitors, / And make us lose the good we oft might win / By fearing to attempt.” Her play and the short film within it are centered on this idea. They tell the story of the purple hour, when the evening light turns magic, and you take twelve stones and cast them, if you can, into the water. The stones represent doubts; if you hesitate, you have not yet overcome them.

Isabella’s role in Measure for Measure famously ends in silence. After resisting Angelo’s proposal for much of the play, she nevertheless remains in forfeit to the world of men: Angelo’s superior, the Duke, returns home in the final Act to condemn Angelo and ask for Isabella’s hand in marriage. Isabella does not respond. Later on in the lives of Luciana and Mariel, the two reunite at the theater. Yet again, Luciana pushes Mariel to perform—only this time, as pure gesture: Mariel should take the stage as an opportunity to cast off all doubts, “to see if you want to act.” A little perplexed, Mariel walks to the stage and takes her place in the center; she looks around at the empty theater and then, without saying a word, leaves. In Piñeiro’s feminist world, Mariel’s silence feels much more like a choice than Isabella’s.