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Isabella (Matías Piñeiro, 2021)

It’s never easy to find one’s calling, and it’s even harder to leave that calling behind, to admit to something like defeat, and to refashion one’s life around new, unexpected pursuits. It could be argued that this is especially hard when one has chosen to embark into that nebulous realm known as “the arts,” where success and failure are challenging to quantify, and sustaining a career can be the result of luck or connections, independent of that ever-elusive ideal called “talent.” These questions are set aswirl in Isabella, the melancholy new film from Argentine director Matías Piñeiro. The film follows aspiring actress Mariel (María Villar), who is pointedly noted during an audition to be 38 years of age, as she grapples with acting, life, and precarity; navigates a pregnancy; and, perhaps, finds her way to something new.

The film tracks Mariel as she attempts, on two separate occasions, to audition for the role of Isabella in an ongoing production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The first time, she runs lines with her older brother’s lover, Luciana (Agustina Muñoz), only to eventually find that her helper has won the role. Months later, her younger brother signs up a now heavily pregnant Mariel to audition a second time, and though she feels confident about her performance, she loses out to Luciana again. As is common in Piñeiro’s films, the timeline is far from linear. But unlike, say, his previous feature, Hermia & Helena, where temporal breaks were clearly marked via title cards, here our clues are solely visual: in one scene Mariel is pregnant, and in the next, she is not. Then, later in the film, and without ado, her newborn appears. We’re always catching up with chronology in Isabella, but this highlights a curious paradox of Piñeiro’s art: he is able, with great help from his regular cadre of sensitive performers, to thoroughly scramble his narratives while still building momentum and deep engagement.

The film begins with a parable of choice: if one is troubled by life, the voiceover says, stand near the water in the purplish light before sunset with 12 stones. Assign each stone a doubt about your life, and cast the rocks, one by one, into the sea. If you hesitate on a certain stone, it means you’re not yet ready to relinquish that particular doubt. The tossing of stones in lilac-accented frames takes on increasing importance throughout Isabella as Mariel revisits a pier that we see in the film’s opening and looks to the rocks to help her make decisions. This ambiguous light (in the world of Isabella, purple is both a “cooled red and a heated blue”) also finds an echo in a series of James Turrell–esque light sculptures placed in regular intervals throughout the film. Piñeiro cuts from his characters to these colored frames-within-frames and holds as the huesshift slightly until, all of a sudden, they’ve tumbled into another end of the spectrum. It’s a beguiling, if tidy, metaphor for the subtle gradations of life and choice under examination in Mariel’s story.

There’s a pleasingly elemental quality to Isabella that’s new to Piñeiro’s cinema. So far, his work has generally focused on the lives and loves of young actors struggling to wrap their minds and mouths around Shakespearean texts. For those familiar with Measure for Measure, there’s plenty of intertextual play to unpack in Isabella, but Piñeiro, filming for the first time in nature, seems drawn to the eternal. He places portions of his narrative in the lush foothills of the Sierras de Córdoba and lets his characters, all of whom seem either on the cusp of or crashing into their forties, act out their relationships to love and theater and each other in dense jungles or against impassive craggy massifs.

Near the film’s end, Mariel learns that she has once again not been cast as Isabella. The movie’s fractured chronology has made this turn of events clear to the viewer for quite some time, yet, miraculously—and thanks to the subtle play of raw emotions on Villar’s face, as if her features have become yet another shifting light sculpture—the lead-up to the news captivates, and her reaction is devastating. Luciana is “just so good,” she admits, crestfallen. Thirty-eight years old, pregnant, with no partner in sight, and perhaps on the verge of leaving acting behind forever, her last hope for a plum role is dashed. The twentysomethings out there don’t know how fast some version of this moment will come to find them.

Given the care (though the churlish might label it fussiness) in Piñeiro’s overall design, it’s surely significant that he’s chosen one of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays.” As the film begins, it is clear that Mariel is in trouble, lacking money, success, and confidence in herself. But by the end, she’s a mother and seems to be energized by new artistic ventures. Those light sculptures are revealed to have overtaken acting as the locus of her creative practice—we see her working with a team to construct some kind of production involving colored lights, layered images, and voiceover narration. She appears different in this context, more sure of herself. Where once she literally faded from the screen, she’s now grounded. In the penultimate scene Luciana, who herself has given up acting in favor of studies and is now the part-time manager of a theater, challenges Mariel about whether she still desires to act. Mariel confidently mounts the empty stage, looks around for a moment, then walks off. The next scene suggests she is unlikely to return: we’re back at the water, this time in close-up, as stones are cast in purple light. I thought I counted twelve plonks into the sea in this final shot. I have my doubts, but I hope that Mariel shed hers.

Jeff Reichert is an Academy Award–winning filmmaker and the co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot.