In the opening sequence of Puzzle, director Natalia Smirnoff quietly introduces both her intimate style and her protagonist's plight. Reduced to bustling hands and a worried face by a series of a close-ups, a woman single-handedly makes and serves a birthday dinner. It's only when Maria (Maria Onetto) brings out the cake that we realize she's been slaving on her own birthday.
A Buenos Aires housewife, Maria is now 50 and beginning to feel restless. Her two sons are grown and on the verge of leaving home — one to his own apartment, the other on a vague quest to India with his earnest new girlfriend, who has already disrupted Maria's routine by being a vegetarian.
As in the recent Queen to Play, our circumscribed heroine begins to explore a wider world through a game. But Maria doesn't turn to anything so grandiose as chess. Her route to tentative self-fulfillment is the jigsaw puzzle.
Discovering a knack for assembling puzzles, Maria guiltily ventures to a place most people would consider entirely innocent: a puzzle store. There she finds an advertisement for a puzzle-tournament partner, which leads to even more alien turf: an Internet cafe. A younger woman helpfully emails the advertiser, and Maria is only one step away from meeting the man who will transform her life.
Actually, "transform" is too strong a word. Maria does begin to blossom under the tutelage of the affluent Roberto (Arturo Goetz), a change marked — just as Hollywood would do it — by Maria's decision to start wearing lipstick. Even the woman's amiably condescending husband, Juan (Gabriel Goity), notices the change, when he isn't asking her to review the invoices at his small auto-parts store or griping that she's forgotten to do the grocery shopping again.
Maria is a natural, whose unorthodox style of puzzle-solving causes a few of Roberto's colleagues to chatter in surprise. But how far can a flair for jigsaw puzzles take her? All the way to the upcoming world championship in Berlin? Maria is both excited and apprehensive about the possible trip. She doesn't even have to ask to know that Juan will disapprove.
This is the feature debut for Smirnoff, who has worked as an assistant director to the great Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel. It enlists several Martel veterans, including lead actress Onetto (who starred in Martel's well-received The Headless Woman) and cinematographer Barbara Alvarez. Like Martel's films, Puzzle is genuine and specific. But it lacks the beguiling strangeness of Martel's best work.
Set in a Buenos Aires that seems both contemporary and outmoded — which is not unlike how the city itself feels — Puzzle has some gentle fun with the clash of staid and hip. Vegetarianism pushes up shoots in one of the world's beefiest countries, and one of Maria's acquaintances, most improbably, has taken up tai chi. (The whispery, tinkly score suggests that the movie is sympathetic to New Age enthusiasms.)
But this carefully rendered miniature shows only glancing interest in such cultural shifts. The movie stays tightly focused on Maria, even after it's followed her from inside (and close-ups) to outside (and a concluding long shot). It's a modest journey, but a satisfying one.