Isabella: Purple Pros, by David Bax
In the opening shot of Matías Piñeiro’s Isabella, the camera tilts down from a purple sky to locate a long, metal jetty projecting over a still body of water from some unseen piece of land, accompanied by the dull, pleasant din large bodies of water make even when they’re calm. We’ll return to the image of the jetty but, in a way, that sonance never leaves the film. It might not always be water itself but–from soft voices to wind and birds–liquid sound is a constant presence. It creates a suitably inviting atmosphere for a movie that’s such a simple joy to watch.
Isabella, like many of Piñeiro’s films, is about actresses and involves Shakespeare. This one jumps around in time as it circles two women–Mariel (María Villar) and Luciana (Agustina Muñoz), colleagues who admire and respect one another–who audition for the same part. But that’s just the logline. Piñeiro is less interested in any possible friction between these two than he is in observing the artistic life. In some ways, it seems like an idealized fantasy of what such a life might be like, showing us actors and others (like the multimedia artist whose soothing work doubles as act break interstitials) who are always fully in the moment. The scrambled timeline adds to this impression by separating each scene from its natural chronological context. At other times, though, Piñeiro aims to demystify, showing us how an artist’s typical day involves as many menial, commonplace tasks as anyone else’s.
Contrasts like these abound in Isabella. Most scenes seem to take place either in expansive outdoor settings like mountains and forests or in claustrophobic interiors; the audition itself happens in a locked interrogation room with the director asking questions from the other side of the two-way mirror. So, again, there’s existential tension to these women’s lives. Are they wandering free or hemmed in?
But rarely is that tension passed on to the viewers, at least not in unadulterated form. Piñeiro projects sympathy from his tranquil perch. There’s no sturm und drang. How could there be when a languid pan across a mountain range or a close-up of a babbling brook running over bare feet is always on deck to re-center us? It’s in the moments where–superficially, at least–nothing is happening that Isabella is at its most compelling.
Piñeiro’s cleverest juxtaposition between two sides of these characters’ lives is his most ironic one. Villar and Muñoz are talented actors and so are the women they’re playing. The film’s dialogue is plain enough to nearly obscure that fact but when they burst into heightened, Shakespearean phrasings, it’s a thrilling, disorienting jolt; it takes moments of obvious falseness to serve as a reminder of how real these women are to us. It’s a welcome shock.
There’s no mode in which Piñeiro and his collaborators work that isn’t lovely. Whether the characters are in strife or supporting one another, whether they are on a walk in the woods or trudging up the stairs to an appointment, there’s a bedrock of grace. Like the artist painting stones different colors, Isabella shows us a world that can be full of beauty if we commit to imbuing our lives with it.