The films of Matías Piñeiro represent something of an ouroboros for a writer enthused by the task of categorization and analysis, for the simple fact that they take the perennial “inability to be pinned down” as the very basis for their cinematic forms. A key member of a new generation of Latin-American filmmakers (Lucrecia Martel, Lisandro Alonso, Kleber Mendonça Filho) who emerged on the international stage during the first decade of this century to probe the layering effects of class identity and nation-formation, Piñeiro differs from his colleagues in several important particulars.
In their own ways, each of these filmmakers engage many of the practices of cinematic modernism (fragmented, angular or dispersed narrative styles, attempts to move away from psychology) in order to de-familiarize the processes by which concrete, individuated efforts and activities coalesce into the abstract, collective-unconscious systems that we understand as History. Piñeiro also shares this impulse, though he extends its parameters, in a manner quite distinct from his colleagues, through a characteristic fascination with a key set of pre-existing, defiantly pre-modern literary texts. Displaced from their original contexts, these texts become the material through which Piñeiro is able to filter a dizzying array of modernist moves gleaned from a garden’s-crop of cinematic, literary and historical antecedents. Such mediations are often pulled through a third formal system, such as amateur theatre in Viola (2012) or the radio play in The Princess of France (2014).
For an avowed cinephile with an extensive knowledge of world cinema history, Piñeiro’s extra-textual formal strategy may initially seem oddly convoluted or counter-intuitive, especially given the peculiar set of challenges inherent in shifting sources from one culture to another. Yet it is precisely this collision of approaches, this layering of disparate sources and styles, that creates the peculiarly supple, quicksilver density that makes Piñeiro’s filmic worlds so beguiling. These are works marshaled with the supreme formal confidence of one whose love of cinema has granted him an aptitude for the sublime discovery (the stray gesture that galvanizes into meaning, dialogue that inexplicably shades over into synchronicity) in such a way as to lend new force and purpose to the myriad extra-filmic sources.
In this sense, Piñeiro’s first two films – The Stolen Man (En hombre robado, 2007) and They All Lie (Todos mienten, 2009), both complex dialogues with the writings of 19th century Argentine President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento – are a dry run for the later, more intricately compressed films based on plays by the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, Viola (2012) included (of which more anon).
Inaugurated by Rosalinda (2011), Piñeiro has steadily cultivated a series of films that are less modernized adaptations of Shakespeare’s comedies (many of them traditionally considered “minor” works) than they are latch-keys that release effervescent pillows of feeling: full-to-bursting with impressions and ideas gleaned from the Bard’s musings on the nature of identity and relationships, each iteration, from film-to-film, scene-to-scene, riper and richer than the last. As a result, Piñeiro’s Shakespeare films constitute an expanded, multi-part project uniquely satisfying to watch unfold, as each pocket-sized nodule clicks seamlessly into the major corpus. Viola is the second of such works, (1) and the first to receive sustained international acclaim across English-speaking critical circuits. (2)
In its broad narrative movement, Viola proceeds as a series of nested-narratives, a structure that furls out, with almost imperceptible ease, a set of romantic and interpersonal intrigues located within a present-day Argentine theatrical troupe, as they set about rehearsing an amateur production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Within this mode, characters shift from everyday conversation to thick Shakespearean verse, often within the same scene, and with whiplash speed; Fernando Lockett’s camera catching all manner of nuances through a series of elegantly composed two-shots. Ostensibly justified as textual rehearsal bleeding over into real life, the brilliance of this “open workshop” conceit is that it paradoxically shifts the Bard’s perennial themes of love, identity and destiny into broader dialogue with 21st century relationship culture.
As befits his source, however, Piñeiro has further games up his sleeve. Midway through the film, we dispense with Twelfth Night entirely: new characters are introduced (some of whom are played by the same actors) who seem to be discussing the situation of the previous set of characters/actors, or the action described in the rehearsals, or both. Our focus instead shifts to what we intuit will be a new set of poetic and emotional parallels in a similar, but not quite the same, closed setting – as if Piñeiro is nudging us, playfully, toward some grand design.
Ever the magpie-cinephile, Piñeiro is also working in the realm of cinematic: there are unmistakable shades of Jacques Rivette and his “conspiracies of the everyday” (frames-within-frames, relationships as a Balzacian hall of mirrors). Nevertheless, whatever this supposed “conspiracy” is meant to amount to – however lightly a ritualistic pact is maintained between filmmaker and characters, audience and film – it never eventuates, at least in the precise manner we expect it to. Piñeiro, our roundelay master, is both cannier and more gently disingenuous than his Viola initially leads us to expect, and always two steps ahead of his audience. Our sense of narrative engagement, by this point a fitful series of stops and starts, peters out. The structure folds in on itself (or, depending on how you look at it, thins out to a straight line), and Piñeiro closes the curtain on one of the funniest, sweetest scenes in recent memory.
If this all sounds impossibly dense or rarefied, it’s an impression salved by the director’s evident love of process, of people, and of his text. Much of the pleasure in Piñeiro’s work comes from the teasing way in which we’re instructed to fold back his puzzle-box structures, all the while surprised that something of reality remains, angled away from us, just out of reach. Call it the Modern Age. Or History. Or, just simply, Life. This is the lineage he shares with Rivette, or even perhaps one that, through Rivette, he shares with Elizabethan theatre (and Balzac, Pirandello and Lewis Carroll). If indeed, as sublime wisdom goes, “all the world’s a stage,” then it is Piñeiro, perhaps foremost among modern film-makers, who has gone the furthest, under the guise of a set of “old” texts, to carry this idea forth into a world full of iPads and mixed-media.
Whereas most filmmakers taking on Shakespeare find inspiration (rightly or wrongly) in his dramas, this modest, sly Argentinean has unlocked the cinematic possibilities of the comedies, reveling in the potential of their artifice to delight and transport us, and even, perhaps, to teach us something, across a span of ages, about living and working in love.
1. Piñeiro has reportedly commenced work on a fourth film in his Shakespeare series.
2. Viola placed sixth on Cinema Scope’s 2012 year-end poll (http://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-online/the-cinema-scope-top-ten-of-2012/) and number 29 on Film Comment’s annual poll in 2013 (http://filmcomment.com/entry/50-best-films-of-2013).
Viola (2012; Argentina & U.S. 65 mins)
Prod Co: Revólver Films Dir: Matías Piñeiro Prod: Melanie Schapiro Scr: Matías Piñeiro, based on the play Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare Phot: Fernando Lockett Ed: Alejo Moguillansky Sound: Daniela Ale, Emilio Iglesias, Francisco Pedemonte & Mercedes Tennina Mus: John Aylward & Julián Tello.
Cast: María Villar, Agustina Muñoz, Elisa Carricajo, Romina Paula, Gabriela Saidon, Laura Paredes, Esteban Bigliardi, Julián Tello, Julia Martínez Rubio, Alessio Rigo de Righi.