Puzzle -- Film Review

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BERLIN -- A sweet little Argentine film illuminated by an engaging performance by protagonist Maria Onetto ("The Headless Woman"), Natalia Smirnoff's directing debut "Puzzle" describes the self-liberation of an exploited housewife thanks to her passion for jigsaw puzzles. Ably balanced between humor and household drama, the light-handed directing is just right for such a small story. Tech work, however, has an under-budgeted look that could rein in certain niche sales, if not festival berths.

Maria del Carmen (Onetto) is so ensnared in domestic routine and so taken for granted at home that she has to make her own cake for her 50th birthday. Her affectionate husband and teenage sons are used to using her as a doormat and when she takes the time to put together an elaborate jigsaw puzzle depicting the proud Queen Nefertiti, their reaction is that she's "wasted a day" -- wasted a day serving them, of course.

Maria's cautious first steps to freedom are giant steps for her: She buys new puzzles to solve and answers an ad in the puzzle shop for a man seeking a partner for a puzzle tournament. Unbeknownst to her family, she is soon practicing for competition with the handsome bachelor Roberto (Arturo Goetz) in a very upscale part of town, a far cry from her own modest suburban digs. He can't help but admire her unique, self-taught style of swiftly interlocking tiny puzzle pieces. Suddenly, she's the one being served by his maid, whose name, coincidentally, is Carmen, and she is able to see herself as an attractive, successful, independent woman for the first time.
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Onetto's graceful manners, and her ability to change her face from plain to beautiful at will, with a radiant smile, is enough to hold audiences attention. There is also the question of how her relationship with the seductive Roberto will develop, and how her family will react to her bold participation in the tournament.

Smirnoff, who earned her stripes working as assistant director to new generation Argentine helmers like Marco Bechis and Lucrecia Martel, has written a sophisticated script that doesn't try to vilify Maria's family; in fact, her husband appears very loving and has his own small, humorous encounters with Tai Chi and tree-hugging, while one of her sons turns vegetarian. Ultimately everyone wins in this gentle fable, weakened only by the over-use of shaky, hand-held photography in washed-out colors.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival

Production companies: Carroussel Films, Las Ninas Pictgurs, Zarlek Producciones
Cast: Maria Onetto, Gabriel Goity, Arturo Goetz, Henny Trailes, Felipe Villanueva, Julian Doregger, Nora Zinsky, Marcela Guerty, Mirta Wons, Mercedes Fraile, Denise Groesman
Director: Natalia Smirnoff
Screenwriter: Natalia Smirnoff
Producers: Gabriel Pastore, Caroline Dhainaut, Luis Sartor, Natalia Smirnoff
Director of photography: Barbara Alvarez
Production designer: Maria Eugenia Sueiro
Music: Alejandro Franov
Costumes: Julio Suarez
Editor: Natacha Valerga
Sales Agent: Memento Films International
88 minutes
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