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NYFF 2020: ‘Isabella’ Review: A Postmodern Twist on Shakespeare and the Rhythms of Female Relationships

Matias Piñeiro

Matías Piñeiro’s Isabella opens with a discussion about the color purple — a color of equilibrium, the film says — as we see a beautiful purple sky. The film uses the word púrpura rather than the more common morado or violeta intentionally, which Piñeiro purports is perhaps a snobbier term to use, but is the word that most adequately captures the lushness and deepness of purple’s hue. Purple is a color of uncertainty and ambiguity, and these questions about the language we use set up the film’s themes: subjectivity and multiplicity.

Mariel (María Villar) is a teacher who dreams of the stage, while Luciana (Agustina Muñoz) is an established actress, and over the years they are consistently pulled back together as each rehearses and auditions for the role of Isabella in Measure for Measure. Isabella uses this Shakespearean text to inspire its action and its loquacious and playful tone, as well as to organize the film’s loose array of images. 

Matias Piñeiro

Piñeiro may not always adhere to iambic pentameter, but finds a rhythm in the relationship between Luciana and Mariel. The film shuffles temporality, moving between the time surrounding an audition to years later, as the role of Isabella keeps resurfacing in both women’s lives. In their early moments of bonding, they hike together and exchange lines against the backdrop of nature. They regularly return to the “purple hour” of their picturesque surroundings even as they grow further apart as time passes.

Production designer Ana Cambre has a keen eye for color, and cinematographer Fernando Lockett brings countless semi-inscrutable images to the screen: colored rectangles, abstract light-art installations, hands holding stones. But these rocks and blocks of color become the center of gravity for Luciana and Mariel‘s relationship as the women circle around one another while the film’s time loops and folds. There’s magic and enchantment in each light-filled frame. The women start to dream of each other as they seek the spirit of Isabella, and Piñeiro takes a poetic approach to his adaptation — routine and performance become intertwined.

Matias Piñeiro

The audition for the part of Isabella is captured in an intense four-minutes-long scene, but there is little catharsis given to either actress in her pursuit of the role. In Shakespeare’s play, the character of Isabella plays tricks on Angelo by getting him to have sex with Mariana, whom he believes to be her. The relationship between Luciana and Mariel and between them and the role of Isabella is defined by a similar sense of replacements and reversals: Luciana is offered the role, but cannot do it because she’s shooting a film in Portugal. Later, Mariel pursues it, and later still, Luciana is offered it once again. Even as things seem to end with Luciana being victorious, there is a lack of resolution with all the redoubling and repetition.

In this latest entry to his series of “Las Shakespeareadas” — female-focused films drawing inspiration from the bard’s plays — Piñeiro and his regular players reject traditional approaches to narrative and performance. At its simplest, Isabella is a subjective story of love and loss, a tale of women who desperately want the role of Isabella knowing one of them can not have it.

Matias Piñeiro

These performers create and collaborate, age and reflect, and are always circling one another as they trace their pasts together even as they are drawn down different paths. In a potent meditation on perspective, Piñeiro creates a gorgeous atmosphere as the actors get lost in their roles, and in one another, beckoning us into the beautiful purple haze with them.

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