There is a wonderfully odd little moment in Natalia Smirnoff’s debut feature, Puzzle, currently playing at the IFC Center. The film’s protagonist, a 50-year-old housewife Maria (Maria Onetto) is on the telephone with one of the other characters. Smirnoff has her framed loosely in a medium shot, holding the phone and talking animatedly. She tells the unseen person on the other end of the phone that she needs to look up the answer to her interlocutor’s question; she walks out of frame, we can hear her faintly in an adjoining room but otherwise there is silence for several seconds, perhaps as many as 20 or 30, then she comes back into the frame and continues the conversation.
It’s a wonderfully casual moment that feels unscripted and unrehearsed, but lived in, and that underlines the great strength not only of Smirnoff’s delightful film, but of much of the Argentine New Wave of the past decade. Like the directors she has worked for – Pablo Trapero, Lucrecia Martel, Alejandro Agresti, among others – Smirnoff’s film emphasizes a splendid combination of spontaneity, economy of means and energy. One could add Daniel Burman, Diego Lerman and Martin Rejtman for their quirky sense of humor, slightly off-kilter rhythms and gift for understatement. Maybe it has something to do with growing up in a country that has seen so much turbulence and insanity in the past fifty years . . . .
The premise of Puzzle is simple and at first glance unpromising. Having turned fifty at the outset of the film Maria is clearly the backbone of her family, the one who keeps the clocks ticking. Her husband and she seem to have a very loving relationship; their two college-age kids are amiable, if a trifle selfish, but one sense that is just a phase they will outgrow. But something is lacking. Among the many gifts she receives at the birthday party is a large jigsaw puzzle. Something about engages her and she sits down to assemble it. And she does so with remarkable alacrity. What can be done with this newly discovered talent? She answers a flier seeking a partner for puzzle contests and find herself working with a rather odd, reclusive man of wealth, Roberto (Arturo Goetz, a Burman regular).
One can easily imagine what an American filmmaker would make of this material today. We would have yet another treacly comedy-drama (i.e., a film that fails as both), with the tedious Sandra Bullock or some other supermarket-magazine bait finding her true vocation and – god help us – true love in the puzzle world. Happily, Smirnoff treats the material with a lovely balance of detachment and dry humor that allows it to breathe, and a formal elegance that fits the film’s title nicely. She shies away from unnecessary melodrama, but lets Maria's character explore possibilities in a very real sense. Puzzle is a charming film that never strains for feeling but finds it naturally in the everyday ordinariness of its characters. As a first feature it shows great promise but more important than that, it is a genuine low-key pleasure to watch.