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Review: ‘Puzzle’ Is a Sweet Diversion But Would Benefit From a Few More Pieces

By  · Published on September 10th, 2011

Maria del Carmen (Maria Onetto) rushes around her house preparing for a party. She’s baking and cooking, greeting the guests as they arrive, and keeping everyone’s plates full. And when it comes time for the birthday cake to come out she lights the candles, carries it to the table, and smiles as everyone sings Happy Birthday.

To her.

She’s not one to complain about her duties as mother and wife, but she’s showing signs that being taken for granted no longer feels like appreciation. She pauses while cleaning up after her party to peruse one of her gifts… a puzzle. Piece by piece, she fits the small cardboard bit together until the final image is complete before here. She finds an unusual satisfaction in the accomplishment, and while it’s unfamiliar for several reasons the most prominent is that the action was for her and her alone.

A visit to a local puzzle and game store opens her eyes to a whole new world, and when she sees a flyer looking for a partner to compete in competitions she cautiously leaps at it. Roberto (Arturo Goetz) is a wealthy, older man who occupies himself with puzzles, and the two hit it off with a combination of personalities and puzzle solving abilities. Is it odd that he’s only had female puzzle partners? Maybe, but the entire experience is odd, new, and exciting for Maria.

Her husband Juan (Gabriel Goity) is far from supportive of her new hobby, going so far as to tell her she’s wasting her days on puzzles. The unspoken implication is that they’re getting in the way of her duties like having dinner ready and buying cheese. Unwilling to face further disapproval she lies to her family about her practice sessions with Roberto, but as the competition date approaches the lies and her need for their approval force her hand.

Puzzle is a small film that teases large ideas about feminism and the changing family unit, but it really comes down to a singular story about one woman’s awakening. Maria’s husband and two sons may take her for granted, but that’s as much her doing as it theirs. She’s allowed this role to exist just as society has, but while it’s clear her family loves her they still fail to understand her changing needs.

Writer/director Natalia Smirnoff matches the story’s small scale with an intimate visual style as well. There are lots of close ups of Maria’s face that highlight her shift from complacency to curiosity to satisfaction.Smirnoff’s camera keeps things personal, but it’s Onetta who really sells the transformation. The internal struggle between her existence solely as support for her family and a woman with needs and desires of her own is played out on her face and in her eyes.

As the final pieces of Puzzle come together the resulting image is of a small but appealing picture. It sets itself up for an expected conclusion and then thankfully avoids it, but while it doesn’t go for the cliche it also doesn’t go for too much else. Maria’s puzzle interest lay in reaching the beautiful image at the end while Roberto is more about deciphering it all along the way. The film lays somewhere in between leaving viewers satisfied but not blown away by Maria’s personal achievement.

The Upside: Fantastic character introduction; Maria Onetto’s performance is strong and conveys so much emotion through expressions alone; avoids clichéd conclusion

The Downside: Feels lightweight and inconsequential at times

Puzzle opens today in limited theatrical release. In the Bay Area it can be seen at SF’s New People Cinema.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.