Rating *** A must-see
Directed by Matías Piñeiro
Before Isabella, Matías Piñeiro’s films have almost been defined by their lack of anchoring images. Whether as a result of his segmented structures — adding and discarding characters and foci — or his tendency towards experimentation and formal gambits that are seldom repeated — think the brief use of negative photography in Hermia & Helena, or the opening surreal association football game in The Princess of France — his work has been caught up, usually for the better, in a youthful sense of currency, constantly moving forwards in his characters’ lives. Even the hopping time structure in Hermia is clearly segmented, the moves between Buenos Aires and New York City a conscious incorporation of the delightful inbetweenness experienced by its characters, perpetually on the move.
Not so in Isabella. Focusing on something like four moments or stretches of time — some separated by hours, some by years — Piñeiro abstracts the relations between not only the four stretches, but also the moments within each into their own sets of associated images. Often, the precise location of each discrete shot in connection with its narrative container is left to be filled in later, most notably with the recurring image of Agustina Muñoz walking on the streets, which repeats something like six times before she finally arrives at her audition.
Were this placed in a more forthrightly experimental film, it would likely be total catnip. As it stands, existing in one of Piñeiro’s typical narratives — notably more downbeat and ruminative than usual as it is — it begs the question of whether this playful and bewildering structure exists at odds with its central narrative. One of said anchoring images offers a way in: that entrancing, somehow practically-made light installation, which builds on its numerous inner rectangles to create an ultimately harmonious whole — so harmonious that when it is ruptured by María Villar walking around within it, it’s a legitimately shocking event.
Calling Isabella is perhaps too strong a statement to make, but there’s an evident design to the syuzhet that, as random as they may seem in the moment, eventually rises to form a coherent, moving arc of acceptance: Villar’s disappointment at losing the part, though evident from very early on, retains the same effectiveness when deployed at the end, and it makes the juxtaposition with her playful interactions with Muñoz at the fabula’s endpoint more charged with the memory of the past. And as his wont, Piñeiro throws in little moments that themselves rupture the texture, cast everything into a new light: the extraordinary moment when Villar almost fades out of existence, the dream represented by actual behind-the-scenes footage from “Sycorax,” his new short co-directed with Lois Patiño.
Even on this second viewing, Isabella was at times extremely elusive and even enervating, so willful in its time-hopping. But the overall serenity, captured so well in the installation and the rock-throwing ritual as the tide quietly ebbs and flows, remains compelling to the end.