Isabella, Argentine director Matias Piñeiro’s sixth feature, recently premiered at this year’s Berlinale in the festival’s new Encounters section, which was seemingly launched to offer a space in the already packed festival for aesthetically ambitious works that might tend more towards narrative than the films in the Forum often do. The film returns to many of Piñeiro’s signatures—it revolves around a Shakespeare play (Measure for Measure), features his frequent actors María Villar and Agustina Muñoz, and is suffused with his films’ typical loquaciousness and playful approach to form—but it also feels in many ways like a reset, a starting-anew. After a detour to his adopted New York City in Piñeiro’s previous film, 2016’s Hermia and Helena, Isabella returns to Buenos Aires and strips its narrative down to a time-shuffled tale of two actresses auditioning for the same role. Yet Piñeiro throws in a variety of new aesthetic, narrative, and formal gambits for good measure. There’s a second playing with a James Turrell-esque set of warm color fields and cardboard frames, a mystical ritual involving twelve rocks painted various colors being thrown, and a newfound interest in color, most notably the color purple, which begins to seep into all aspects of the film’s mise-en-scene.
Jessica Dunn Rovinelli (Rail): You have multiple timelines going on in Isabella and temporality is shuffled. When you’re watching the film it’s very easy to follow the various timelines, but then at the same time you can’t help but think of the different timelines of shooting: María Vilar is pregnant, she’s not pregnant, the actors’ faces look different. One gets the sense of you going back to Argentina repeatedly to shoot it. How did time and time loops start to come into the film? Did the production bring that out?
Matias Piñeiro: I think it’s very simple, pragmatic. There are things that come up from the production system in which I work, which is full of limitations. Production becomes part of the mise-en-scene. I live in New York but work with people in Buenos Aires. I teach during the school year so I only have time to work during my breaks when I can go to Buenos Aires. I don’t have enough money because I don’t have a full script, but we start. I can start by saying, “Let’s go to Córdoba, I’ve never shot in nature.”
I usually start with a premise, like the film is about this woman that wants to get the role of Isabella and never gets it. So, first episode: Córdoba, second episode: Buenos Aires, third episode, la la la. That was the idea, then you start making the movie and you start changing things. You don’t have enough money to have the whole picture but you have a little, and a structure that is strong so you have to pick up more money in the middle. The production system stimulates my structures, my formal structures, my writing structures, to become more complex.
Rail: This is your color film. Where did the color come from? What came first, the color or the painted rocks or the script?
Piñeiro: The thing that came first was the color purple, which was gradually applied to many areas. In purple I find this lack of certainty: is it purple, violet, lilac, fuschia? There are purples that you can define, but for me it's more unclear. I think subjectivity appears more strongly [with purple] than with orange. We could have made it with orange, but in the world of purple, I could distinguish different names. I even love this in translation: in Spanish, we say violeta for purple. In Argentina, nobody would say “purple.” When I say púrpura, it's a little bit of a pain in the neck, because people would typically refer to violeta and there’s that confusion. So I like that uncertainty, how the limits are very blurry with this particular color. My production designer, Ana Cambre, is very sensitive to color, so she’s a perfect accomplice.
Then it came from a friend. An homage to Hugo Santiago, [a director] from Argentina. He passed away in 2018. His last movie works with purple. He had this idea about a very flat color film, but with purple. When he came to New York, when I just moved there, we were walking in MoMA, [and] he was looking for a Hopper—that very famous Hopper that has a house on rails in the lower part of the canvas—and he was saying something about how the color was organized in regards to everything being monochromatic, but the chimney was a little too orange. He said the whole painting would be pretty flat, but then there would be one color, one hue that would be off, without calling great attention to it. I thought, “what does he mean by that?” And I took a photo of it. It stayed in my mind. In this movie, it's purple.
Another thing was that some years ago, parallel to all of this, there was an interview with my cinematographer, Fernando Lockett. He said he was pretty surprised that most filmmakers don’t consider color much. They care about the acting, the framing, the movement, but not that much about color. And it’s true, I’ve thought very simply about the way films look in a sense, and so I started thinking about color. All of this was happening at the same time: Hugo talking about color, doing his movie that took so long, Hugo decaying, Hugo disappearing, Hugo dying, and then I needed to make Isabella.
Rail: Now that we have the colors, let's get to the rocks. Because suddenly we have these highly symbolic objects in your film, which I don’t think we’ve seen before in your work. They become a center of gravity that Shakespeare and the actors and those little plays and riffs that are always in your films start to oscillate around. They start to take the color into them, and they have their own rituals. What sort of role did these rocks play?
Piñeiro: I have realized after making some films and talking to people that my films are very minimal, but I do charge them with a certain energy. The potato stamp in Viola (2012), the letters, the postcards in Hermia and Helena, books—the books are not just something for you to say “oh, this woman is educated,” they have an extra meaning. I’m still figuring it out. But it's true that it's more symbolic. I’ve not rejected symbols. It's a little more polyvocal. It’s not anxiety, it’s not doubt. Throwing the stone is eliminating doubt in the logic of the ritual, but still it's an embodiment of something that is moving, a little like the color purple. It’s true that it’s charged with meaning that is not just the meaning of a mere rock.
Piñeiro: I don’t even know how to describe it. The stone is still a stone, but it’s also a prop which sits a little funny because it becomes something. I also think it’s a little fetish. When we are framing we fetishize everything—the hand, or the face. With objects, I do that. They’re not random elements. In this film they have this inner meaning or intention of trying to convey this certain emotion of the character. Exactly what that is, I wouldn’t be able to say. It’s true that this character who desires things is frustrated, works around her frustration. She’s putting something into this stone. She’s putting her desire there. Structurally speaking it’s part of the script, it’s part of the plot, it’s part of the network that I do, shoot after shoot, to give Isabella a feeling of unity. The stones first appeared in the first thing we shot in Córdoba. I liked those shots so I decided to reproduce them, to make them appear again so as to connect these elements. In Córdoba we found them because we were in the mountains and we used them in the rehearsal. In the second shooting, we used them as a ritual. At that moment, I didn’t know what the ritual was going to be. On the third, they became the prop of the second play. And in the fourth, the stones don’t appear but they’re part of the play. From the mountains [of Córdoba], they became a prop we scripted.
Also there was a moment where I wanted the play they were doing to be a little Beckettian. I know that Beckett has all these things with stones, and so in the play that we did we tried to copy a little bit of that. I don’t know why I like this idea of painted rocks. They look a little bit absurd. It has to do with something that is absolutely natural but has this uneven shape. When you paint them, suddenly they become artificial. I like that paradox. Something that is part of the mountain, part of the land, and suddenly, you subvert it. You paint it purple so it becomes this weird element charged with something that you don’t know. When you paint something you take it out of its regular context.
Rail: As an editor I have to ask, you have these four timelines and you use them very loosely, but the film is very sharply edited. When you’re working with your editor, what became the guiding measure for how you structure scenes, either internally or between each other, and what guides a cut? What is the thought behind a cut in this film?
Piñeiro: Yeah, and they’re very narrative in a way. And it’s very rigorous. I edited with paper. I printed all the shots and did little paper things. I would work on the floor because I didn’t have a script that went from scene one to scene 85, but I would know if one shot came before another. So I would be able to make those relationships with every shot, so for me it was a little bit like doing a puzzle. I actually bought a 1,000-piece puzzle of a Pollock painting. I failed big time in doing it, but I feel that the exercise was similar. When you’re doing a puzzle and you find a red and you’re like “Okay, let’s follow the red.” You produce lagoons, what I call “zones.” Maybe a script writer would refer to them as acts but I like the idea of zones, or lagoons. This goes before this, this goes before that, and you can see groups of shots that were related to each other and then you start playing, like, “Okay, let’s put this here.” And then I would have a big picture. And as I was doing it in color, I could also see color.
At first, I wanted to have all the timelines [at once], and then I realized that was a big mistake, that it was too confusing. Future Two could not be introduced before Future One. Even though everything is mixed, there is a chronology that needs to be kept. I do like confusion and I do think that confusion can produce ambiguity and a space to stimulate the viewer, [but] I think you have to measure it because it can be confusing in a bad way. I did want to have a structure that was a little bit crazy but that you could follow. Maybe it takes you time to follow, but then at the very end of the movie it’s very smooth sailing. Chronological time becomes irrelevant in a way, no? Because it’s more about a cyclical experience of time. Chronological time becomes banal. So l think that after a while the movie gives the viewer the confidence to be okay, relaxed. Color helps, because it gives the sense of “this relates somehow.”
We were very lucky that María was pregnant. That also changed things. That helped to put other topics on the table like women at work, women under desire, women becoming mothers, how is motherhood working, where do we put motherhood? And I think that it was interesting how that appeared and we dealt with it. I like that she was auditioning for a role as a nun with a huge belly. It’s very, “I’m not going to stop doing things because I’m having a baby.” Everything that reality brings to you should be incorporated.
Rail: I couldn’t help thinking about age. This is a film that starts to feel like a film that deals with the past. You’ve worked with the same people for so many years and they’re starting to age and she’s on her third pregnancy and we see bodies changing. How do you relate to this as an artist who has made several films and is aging alongside a group of collaborators?
Piñeiro: Age brings a desire to look inwards, no? I do enjoy the relationship between the women because in a film about someone wanting something and another person also wanting the same thing, you could have made it a competition. I think that the movie’s not about that. It’s about the inner realization, the realization of the character. In that sense, there is something about not wanting to shoot love, not wanting to shoot kisses. In all my films, there are a lot of kisses. Here, there are no kisses, no need for kisses, it’s about her self.
I think that my decision to choose Measure for Measure has to do with that. It’s not a light comedy, it’s a problem play. I think that has to do with becoming older. I didn’t shoot for four years. Those four years resonated very strongly, personally speaking, with my issues with immigration and issues that heated my personal life, but also living in the land of Trump and the right-wing in Argentina. These topics are not in the movie, but there’s an awareness. There’s a link through times that are less light and so my way of reacting to that was the changing of the tone.
This is a play where Ana has a brother in prison and the judge asks her for sex to release him and then there’s beheadings and there’s prison. The film doesn’t relate to that directly but there’s a tone. Time has given us a few blows. We also share life and we’re here for each other, we learn from each other.
Rail: To that political element you bring up, this is a film about frames, right?
Rail: We see frames quite literally, even in the poster of the film itself. They’re in the second play, in its construction of lights and frames within frames. When she’s auditioning you’re seeing her through a frame. She’s removed from the spectator. I couldn’t help thinking that the frame creates a place that provides care and safety for these actors. The film to me is about what’s not in the frame. We don’t see immigration problems, we never see a lover, we never see these things.
Piñeiro: We never see action. You never see the judge.
Rail: Exactly. The brutality of the film is in the Shakespeare play, which again is a script we don’t see. Can you speak on the frames? On the inside and the outside?
Piñeiro: I never thought about this idea of frames as holding the characters, taking care of the characters, not exposing them to violence. It is interesting.
Rail: It’s what I try to do in my films, so maybe I’m projecting.
Piñeiro: I never thought about it, but somehow it is true. There’s some sort of sensitivity, to not exploit our sense of conflict that is so clear and manipulable. Somehow the frame is [such that] even though something is going to be talked about, or referred to, or a tone, or an inner connection with a viewer can touch certain emotions or thoughts, it’s not in the full picture, it’s outside. The idea of wishing for a protected world, in a way. Sometimes I think, “what is it like to shoot a scene of torture?” I think that I couldn’t do it, because how do you represent that, present again a moment of torture? I wouldn’t like to do that, why would I do it in a film? I don’t want to protect that, I want that out of the world.
I haven’t found a way of including it into my frames, a world that I reject; I reject it at point zero by leaving it outside. It’s the idea of framing the proposal of a world. You’re proposing a world that is very delicate and very fragile. How can we make that without falling into an oblivion, an erasure of violence? [It’s] in that sense, I think, that I was interested in this darker tone, that going into the inside, expressing an emotion. And still playing. The scene in the audition is very hostile but not at the expense of making suffering a joy. There is a wicked thing in the viewer: Hitchcock talked about how perverse the viewer is and how as a filmmaker you’re feeding that perversion, wanting to see people suffering. And I think that even in that scene there’s no suffering.
And I decided to make a four minute scene of [the audition]. In its framing there’s also the fetish thing. Heightening, giving more meanings to the objects, to the subjects, to the space, and relating to violence and rejecting violence in many sorts. The question is, “how could the film still illuminate something of that darker side without having to reproduce it?”