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Maria Onetto, center, in PUZZLE (Photo: Christian Colace/Sundance Selects)

Written & Directed by Natalia Smirnoff
Produced by
Gabriel Pastore, Caroline Dhainaut, Luis Sartor & Smirnoff
Released by Sunance Selects
Spanish with English subtitles
Argentina. 74 min. Not Rated
María Onetto, Gabriel Goity, Arturo Goetz, Felipe Villanueva & Julián Doregger

Puzzle intimately puts together the pieces of a middle-aged woman’s liberation into a charmingly fresh whole. María (María Onetto) is the kind of devoted suburban wife and mother who does all the cooking, baking, let alone cleaning up, for her own 50th birthday party, yet she doesn’t think of herself as a desperate housewife. After putting together a broken plate, she’s intrigued by a present from an elderly aunt—a large jigsaw puzzle of a Nefertiti portrait. Surprise—she’s good at it! So good that her kids’ old puzzles in the closet and the ones at the local toy store look too much like child’s play. She’s spurred to ask where the present was bought. The aunt is also a convenient cover story for her to take a long train ride into Buenos Aires to a specialty store that is not only filled with 2,000-piece puzzles but has an intriguing personals ad posted on the wall: someone seeks a training companion for puzzle tournaments. But first, María has to figure out how to e-mail a response.

Writer/director Natalia Smirnoff, in her debut film, demonstrates the lessons of a subtle style she learned as assistant director on Jorge Gaggero’s Live-In Maid (2004). She lets the story of this woman’s rising assurance and independence unfold visually through her actions and the reactions of those around her (and they’re surprised, not nasty to her). When her warmly affectionate husband, Juan (Gabriel Goity), mocks her for wasting days figuring out puzzles, and laughs at such a thing as a puzzle tournament, she feels she has to hide her new fascination. She’s not an empty nester yet, what with her sons still nagging for their favorite foods, but they are starting to grow up, and she has to adjust to their changes, too. One teen son brings along his vegetarian girlfriend whose lifestyle he is adopting, and even her husband is flirting with tai chi.

Sure, it’s a bit of a film fantasy that the person looking for a puzzle partner is handsome and rich Roberto (Arturo Goetz, seen internationally as the father figure in Daniel Burman films). María luminously lights up when she enters his mansion’s library stacked with high shelves of puzzle boxes, and she demonstrates a natural flair with an unorthodox, instinctual feel for putting pieces together quickly—without doing borders first! Roberto does provide useful tips for competition—group the same colors, don’t look at the picture, set up a timer, and don’t get rattled by the snarky comments of the mean girls he brings in for a trial contest before the nationals. But she can’t possibly even think of aiming for the world championship in Germany with him—or can she?

While there’s some similarity in outline to Caroline Bottaro’s Queen to Play (2009), about a housekeeper who blossoms into a chess prodigy, it’s refreshing to have the source of self-discovery be so deceptively ordinary. Ever since Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), cinema prefers that a woman’s afternoon delights be more salacious, and though there is more than a little erotic tension here as well, the focus is always satisfyingly on the burgeoning glow of the quietly expressive Onetto. Nora Lee Mandel
May 27, 2011



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