Maria Onetto offers subtle dimensions to a housewife with a new hobby in Argentine 'Puzzle.'

‘Puzzle’ Pieces Together a Life

Jonathan Kiefer September 9, 2011

Maria Onetto quietly dazzles in Argentine film about a midlife jigsaw puzzler.

Argentine writer-director Natalia Smirnoff makes an assured feature debut with what might seem like hard-to-sell material: a story about a meek, middle-aged housewife who discovers that she has a penchant for puzzles. If Puzzle (playing SF Film Society | New People Cinema this week) is the sort of film that seems increasingly unproducable in America, at least with the sanction of any studio, it’s also one that could make any cinephile’s heart go out to it, sight unseen.

Seen, it is easily savored. The star is Maria Onetto, last viewed on San Francisco screens in The Headless Woman, which was directed by Lucrecia Martel, for whom Smirnoff has worked as an assistant, and this, too, is a quiet marvel of Onetto appreciation.

There are those actors about whom we say we’d gladly watch them read the phone book. Smirnoff’s idea is: Let’s have a look at Onetto doing a jigsaw—and becoming empowered by it.

We meet her character, also called Maria, midway into preparation for and then thankless servitude to a houseful of party guests. Turns out the party’s for her; it’s her 50th birthday. A mellow affair, but melee enough for her to drop and break a plate. At which time she dons her glasses for a better look, gathers up the stray shards, and situates herself nicely for a small epiphany, and the useful discovery of a puzzle among her birthday gifts.

Knowing what the movie is called, we observe with interest. But it’s done in such a way that interest arises anyway. The light is warm, a ruddy gold. The camera is hand-held and close. The performance is exquisitely subtle. That first puzzle is a portrait of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, in whose regal bearing Maria briefly tries to pose herself. Amazingly, mysteriously, Onetto’s face looks open and closed at the same time.

Fifty years. Has she lost track of them? Or they of her? Clarity on the matter isn’t forthcoming from her husband (Gabriel Goity), whose affection for her seems true but might be a matter of enabled complacency. Meanwhile their two sons, young men, seem ready to leave the nest. The nest is cozy, but also timeworn and faintly claustrophobic. Might it not behoove her to get out a little more herself?

She finds her way to a sophisticated gentleman (Arturo Goetz) who’s seeking companionship—for a puzzle tournament. “Your style is unorthodox, but you are very good,” he purrs. “Would you like to train together?”

When her husband can’t help but laugh about it all, Maria feels a need to change the subject. Later he’s contrite, but she stays hurt. It’s not a grudge. It’s a self-discovery. Importantly, the new guy disappoints her too. What matters is her alertness, and Onetto has that down.

The movie might not have worked without her. But then, it might not need her were it not so humane. Smirnoff’s style, somehow both doting and unfussy, seems like nothing so much as privileged, perceptive hanging out. This is much harder to pull off than it might appear.

She doesn’t really get into the subculture of competitive puzzling, and that’s a mercy. Her priority is clear and refreshingly simple: to glimpse and celebrate a narrow life ever so slightly broadening.