PRINT Summer 2013


Matías Piñeiro’s Viola

Matías Piñeiro, Viola, 2012, HD video, color, sound, 65 minutes. Photo: Cinema Guild

WITH A GROWING NUMBER of hybrid films drawing on the restless energies of documentary, the Argentinean writer-director Matías Piñeiro stands apart for asserting the latent possibilities of drama. Over four wholly distinctive films, Piñeiro has devised his own variant on interdisciplinary cinema, one that treats theater as a mutable raw material for film and insists on the cinematic qualities of text and language. If many recent art films have made prominent use of nonactors, typically cast as some version of themselves, Piñeiro’s beguiling, hyperverbal movies revel in the transportive potential—and sheer pleasure—of actors acting. Instead of rooting stories in the soil of the real, they emphasize the alchemical properties of fiction, the power of the written and spoken word to warp the world and generate their own reality.

Piñeiro’s latest film, the hour-long Viola, which opens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on July 12 (the run was slated before I began programming there), begins onstage, then moves behind the curtain and, finally, out into the real world—a passage that more or less describes the mysterious torque of all the director’s work, in which a given text somehow transcends its own boundaries through the characters’ trancelike engagement with it. Viola revolves around an all-female theatrical production of a Shakespeare mash-up—the bit we see at the start is adapted from Twelfth Night—and opens with one of its heroines, Sabrina (Elisa Carricajo), just before curtain, terminating a relationship over the phone. Among other things, this is a film about how love ends—and begins.

Piñeiro tunnels into the highly specific, faintly enchanted world of Viola with three long interior scenes, each a marvel of verbal and physical choreography, Fernando Lockett’s fluid camera matching the dizzying swirl of words. Onstage, Sabrina and Cecilia (Agustina Muñoz) play out the courtship of Olivia and Viola, watched by an audience of rapt young men. In the dressing room afterward, the women pivot from Sabrina’s romantic travails to debating the rules of courtship, in a girl-talk session that smoothly accommodates riddling literary citation and philosophical digression. Next, a mischievous start-stop rehearsal between Cecilia and Sabrina—looping their lines into an incantatory mantra, turning words into weapons and traps of seduction, merging their on- and offstage selves—generates both erotic tension and ontological confusion.

It’s into this artfully woven web—the artifice of theater enmeshed in the flux of real life—that the title character, played by María Villar, emerges. Like Shakespeare’s Viola, Piñeiro’s is an emissary: She bikes around Buenos Aires making deliveries for the pirated-DVD service that she runs with her boyfriend. But while Shakespeare’s headstrong heroine catalyzes much of the action in Twelfth Night, this Viola is rather more passive. As another character bluntly tells her: “Things just happen to you.”

But who is making them happen? Most crisscrossing ensemble movies give the impression of a filmmaker yanking the strings. Piñeiro, whose films all concern groups of young, artistically inclined people (mostly women), creates the opposite effect. As in the movies of Jacques Rivette, the narrative unfolding on-screen is a spell that acts on characters and viewers alike. The deepening mystery remains stubbornly unsolvable: There is a persistent sense of an inscrutable logic at work, a big picture that remains just out of view.

Viola is Piñeiro’s second ode to Shakespeare. His previous film, Rosalinda (2011), opens with a troupe of actors rehearsing scenes from As You Like It in a sun-dappled riverside setting before shifting into another form of role-playing disclosure, with a murder-mystery card game. The milieu and the conspiratorial atmosphere are familiar from Todos mienten (They All Lie, 2009), Piñeiro’s densest work, in which the characters, gathered at a country house, stage all manner of fictions and deceptions, some involving the family connection between one of the characters and Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, the progressive nineteenth-century writer and statesman. Sarmiento also figures in Piñeiro’s first feature, El hombre robado (The Stolen Man, 2007), in which museum employees engage in romantic intrigue that parallels aspects of Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (1845), Sarmiento’s epic dissection of the Argentinean psyche.

For all their reliance on source material—the Shakespeare snippet seen in Viola naturally includes the line “Where lies your text?”—Piñeiro’s films are in no conventional way adaptations. Nor do they quite fulfill the deconstructive mandate of most metafiction. The recitations of Shakespeare and Sarmiento are all the more vivid for being fragmentary, repeated, and by turns naturalized and defamiliarized; Piñeiro’s films gain their stealthy force through accretions of possible meaning, partial glimpses that amount to more than the whole.

Viola, in the end, doesn’t transplant Shakespeare to the present day so much as summon the spirit of his polymorphous comedies. Anyone can play any part, as Piñeiro suggests with the apparent interchangeability of the actresses in the production within the film (not to mention the daisy chain of couplings and uncouplings in Todos mienten). The world itself is subject to transformation: Midway through a scene that starts in a minivan in radiant sunlight, a door slides open to reveal a rainstorm outside. The mercurial mood speaks to the youthful energies, creative and libidinal, that define Piñeiro’s work, but it also lends itself to sudden, epiphanous shifts in tone. Viola ends with a devastating sleight of hand—an out-of-nowhere voice-over that reframes the present as past, a single gesture that ruptures the moment and enlarges the world.

Viola and Rosalinda open at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York on July 12; Todos mienten and El hombre robado will be screening as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Latinbeat series, July 12–21.

Dennis Lim is the director of cinematheque programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.