Argentine director Matías Piñeiro works in the intersections of literature, theater, and film. One of his most frequent motifs is of characters handling physical texts — the roundness of skin bristling against the flatness of paper, the two-dimensional element given illusory depth through cinema. It’s a symbol of Piñeiro’s own artistic process. In one scene in Isabella, his latest feature, a woman devising the set design for her play sits on a floor assessing various pieces of paper, each a slightly different shade of purple. “The color purple,” the voiceover says, is “both a heated red and a tinted blue. Fragility and strength at the same time … an opportunity for making decisions.” She arranges the rectangles in order of their purple-ness — darkest to lightest, periwinkle to mauve to lavender to violet. It’s a physical manifestation of her mind trying to order itself. The movie around her is frequently shaded in purples.
All Piñeiro’s stories hinge on Shakespeare in some way, though not in the sense of direct adaptation or retelling. As someone who’s read the Bard in translation, he approaches these texts with deep familiarity, but also as an outsider. He is an interpreter, not a translator. In Viola (2012), the characters are rehearsing a production of Twelfth Night, while the protagonist of Hermia & Helena (2016) is translating A Midsummer Night’s Dream into Spanish. Isabella revolves around Luciana and Mariel (played by regular collaborators Agustina Muñoz and María Villar), who both audition for the role of Isabella in Measure for Measure. When Luciana gets the role, Mariel decides to focus on directing her own play, a meditation on doubt.
While connecting a plot to Shakespeare may automatically compel the audience to join the dots, Piñeiro resists this impulse. Neither Mariel nor Luciana are stuck in silence within a double-cross of patriarchy, like the heroines of Measure for Measure. Instead, the movie allows them to sit with their doubts and reconcile their decisions. If you have the advantage of having been acquainted with this leading pair through nearly a decade’s worth of Piñeiro’s films, you can chart the felt effects of time on them even better. In Viola, both Villar and Muñoz played teenagers, biking through Buenos Aires delivering pirated DVDs and using a potato to stamp envelopes. In Hermia & Helena, they’re college-age exchange students indulging the whims availed by their anonymity in New York. In Isabella, Villar’s character is 38, pregnant, and has arrived at a meditative outlook on life and the moments of silence that hold it in parentheses. Muñoz is questioning success and the ways people define it.
Women often run lines together in the Piñeiro-Shakespeare multiverse — helping each other memorize, repeating them together over and over. There is some competition, perhaps even bursts of jealousy, but always a sense of being in tandem. This motif repeats in Isabella. Even when Mariel and Luciana aren’t friends, they’re touchstones for one another, each questioning the other’s choices, accepting decisions, and soothing self-doubts. These films fixate on the tiniest parts of the creative process. In such scenes there’s a little give and a little take, minuscule changes in emotion — one measure for another, if you will.
The stage decoration of Mariel’s play ultimately comprises a block of nested rectangles, each a different purple. Like the characters, the work itself suggests contrasting moods of doubt and certitude, varying shades of red and blue. Stones lay within the rectangles; if a character is sure of a decision, they chuck a stone into water, while if they are hesitant they hold onto it. All of us bear such stones — some in humiliation and silence, like Shakespeare’s Isabella, and some in more subtle ways, like actors and audiences waiting for the curtain to rise.
Isabella is now playing in select theaters.