Fri. Oct 30th, 2020

NYFF Review: ‘Isabella’ doesn’t sink or swim—it just floats

Filmmaker Matías Piñeiro has added to his Shakespearean-inspired filmography with Isabella, which is as much a meditation on Measure for Measure as it as an adaptation of it. Complete with warm yet striking colors, a circular timeline of events, and the meandering sounds of life in both the city and the countryside, Isabella is an aesthetically pleasing film that offers more substance with what it omits than with what it includes.

If you’re not familiar with Measure for Measure, Mariel and Luciana (María Villar and Agustina Muñoz, respectively, two staples of Piñeiro’s work) give you the basics: A young nun, Isabella, must persuade the vengeful Angelo to spare the life of her brother, Claudio, but Angelo will only accept Isabella’s virginity as payment. Mariel and Luciana repeat one of Isabella’s many pleas to Angelo so much that it becomes first a mantra, then a game: If he had been as you and you as he, you would have slipt like him, but he, like you, would not have been so stern. We all give in to temptation, so why get hung up on someone else’s transgression?

Isabella is a nonlinear tale of ambition and a lack of ambition, of decisions and a refusal to make decisions, of moving on and never really getting over heartbreak. For some reason, a local production of Measure for Measure changes the course of everyone’s lives: Mariel decides to quit acting for good, Luciana reaffirms her commitment to art, and because of both sorrow and the logistics of motherhood and their careers, the two will not see each other for quite some time. This winding circle of events makes you doubt exactly what you’re witnessing onscreen: Are we now in the film that Luciana is shooting in Portugal? Are we now a part of Mariel’s colorful art installation? Are we ourselves within Measure for Measure, or have we somehow become characters in the very film we’re watching? These questions swim in and out of the film, but never overwhelm its quiet interrogation of the relationship between art and the self. Measure for Measure and the neon lights of Mariel’s experimental art exercise don’t force the characters to find themselves through their craft, but instead directly steer their participants to some kind of declaration or assertion—You have twelve rocks, Mariel explains, and you go to the water to throw them. If you hesitate with a rock in your hand, your indecision is worth investigating, and that, in a way, is the answer to your own deliberation. Isabella lulls you with a babbling river, sneakers on rocks and grass, soft wind through trees, and the slowly changing hues of purple light. It doesn’t necessarily answer any of the philosophical questions it poses, but a definitive rendering of absolute truth would feel out of place in a film so non-confrontational.

There are obvious parallels to Shakespeare’s text in Isabella: Mariel, heavily pregnant, unemployed, and more like Claudio than her beloved Isabella, must work up the courage to ask her brother for money, while debating with his lover whether he is someone who keeps his word. At her audition for the part of Isabella, when asked what she would do for her siblings—if she would give up something sacred to save their lives—the look on Mariel’s face tells us before she speaks that she wouldn’t even consider a proposition like Angelo’s. The actresses talk about being “locked down” during the audition, as if they are imprisoned like Claudio or psychologically tormented like Isabella. While this production becomes the axis around which the characters’ lives revolve, Piñeiro never makes it clear why Measure for Measure and Isabella are so vital to his elusive ensemble. Is it because Measure for Measure is a “problem play,” not definitively a comedy or a tragedy, just as Isabellacan’t be put into a single category? As Luciana and Mariel acknowledge, Measure is “dark,” a messy meditation on soul versus body that delights in the physical, emotional, and mental agony of an unassuming group of Viennese citizens. And it’s as poignant today as it’s ever been as a tale of a woman coerced into unwanted sex to ensure her future welfare; Angelo’s retort to Mariel and Luciana’s Isabellas, that no one will believe that he threatened her because “my false overweighs your true,” cuts to the bone as much as it did 400 years ago. We don’t need to see the onscreen exploitation of Mariel and Luciana to trust that they can relate to the anxiety of Measure for Measure, but the ambiguity of the play’s importance is more vexing than meaningful. 

Maybe the draw is because Isabella, like Mariel, is defined by her inaction. At the end of the play, she remains silent when the Duke, her covert observer, proposes marriage, and this silence has remained her hallmark for centuries. Luciana prompts Mariel to revisit her stone throwing exercise at the end of the film to see whether or not she may want to revisit acting—but Mariel doesn’t allow herself even the metaphor of this exercise. She simply exits, silent, and though we see the ripples of rocks hitting water in the purple sunset, we don’t know if this is art, life, or the quietly unsatisfying moment where they may briefly intertwine.

This review is from the 58th New York Film Festival.

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