Is it the summer of Shakespearean comedy? You might not guess it from the box-office grosses, but with the release of Joss Whedon's delightful Much Ado About Nothing and now Matias Piñeiro's wondrous Viola, the spirit, if not the strict content, of Shakespeare's less bloody-minded plays is sneaking into theaters, offering an invaluable lesson to other films in how to be lighthearted without being empty-headed.
It would be misleading, though, to simply call Viola a Shakespeare adaptation. Piñeiro's film follows a group of actors performing a hybrid of seven Shakespeare works — one that Piñeiro once put on in real life, incidentally. All we see of the performance is a scene, taken from Twelfth Night, in which the shipwrecked Viola, disguised as a duke's squire, delivers the master's love letter to the Countess Olivia.
The flirtatious back and forth in that exchange becomes Viola's rough material, a scene that Piñeiro plays and replays until it comes to serve the purpose of his story more than that of its original play. The filmmaker's method is most on display as we watch Sabrina (Elisa Carricajo) and Cecilia (Agustina Muñoz), the actresses playing Olivia and Viola respectively, rehearse their lines in Sabrina's apartment.
Sabrina has just broken up with her boyfriend, in part as a declaration of her complete emotional self-dependence — her ability to bestow and withdraw love on demand regardless of the desires and enticements of others. Cecilia, determined to prove Sabrina's hardhearted declaration wrong, sets about winning her over during rehearsal.
The scene is made up almost exclusively of their Twelfth Night lines, but as the two follow each other around Sabrina's living room, working through the sequence and then looping back to restart the dialogue, the moment pulses with a fervent, physical energy that's only enhanced by the delight of hearing Shakespeare's text delivered so effectively in a brand-new context.
Adding also to that scene's tension is an incessantly ringing doorbell and telephone that Cecilia and Sabrina, by this point interested only in each other, choose not to hear.
On the other side of the phone and door is a real-life Viola (María Villar), who runs a counterfeit-DVD company with her boyfriend, delivering pirated movies by request to customers' apartments. And with the cue of these rings, Piñeiro shifts the story suddenly to its title character, largely leaving behind the romantic intrigue set up in the previous scenes.
Largely, let's stress: The shift will eventually prove part of a cohesive storyline, but in the meantime it confirms a creeping suspicion that the film may have more deceptive intentions than it first appeared.
That feeling is more pronounced even than in Piñeiro's Rosalinda, an earlier movie that offers a similarly idiosyncratic spin on Shakespeare — and which, because the two films have a combined running time of under two hours, will be screening alongside Viola in theaters.
Like Viola, Rosalinda blurs the line between reality and fiction, and it underscores that unsteadiness with the surreal mood of its remote riverside-cottage setting. "In Rosalinda," Piñeiro told Film Comment, "sometimes I had this feeling that when the text was over, the people in the film would cease to exist."
Viola, unlike Rosalinda, is set in an urban environ, but the film's interweaving storylines and the increasingly self-contained nature of the world it portrays contribute to a similar dreaminess. The film's most memorable scene, in fact, is a dream sequence — and the manner in which Piñeiro transitions away from waking life is telling. The change occurs gradually, as a previously sunny day turns rainy and the layout of the van in which the scene takes place morphs just slightly. When the character wakes up, we're back in the real world with equally little fanfare.
In moments like that, Piñeiro is playing with potentially heady themes and premises, but his execution is casual enough to impart a charming mystery to his work rather than any real sense of confusion. He's not engaging in mind games; he only wants to distance you, just a bit, from normality.
This playfully enigmatic style sets Piñeiro apart from the Argentine new wave filmmakers who pushed their country's cinema back into the global spotlight a generation ago. That group, which includes now established directors like Lucrecia Martel and Pablo Trapero, is known for gritty films that focus on poverty, corruption and upper-middle-class ennui.
Piñeiro's films have a much lighter touch, almost disarmingly so. His characters seem to float along life's currents, making out with one another here, launching into jam sessions there, and as a viewer you sink easily into their pleasant, pleasure-friendly atmosphere.
But the feeling is illusory. Piñeiro's tools are straightforward: He'll hold a close-up long after a character finishes speaking, letting her reactions — or a face revealing wandering thoughts — fill the screen. The effect over time, due in no small part to the talented group of actors Piñeiro has worked with on all his films, is a slow revelation of depth and emotion.
And in Viola, particularly, what results is a film that takes on the vicissitudes of life and love with honest concern, but also with a shrug of the shoulders — a movie that leaves us with a smile on our faces but also more than a few thoughts in our heads. (Recommended)