Poignant and lovely, Puzzle is about the pieces of ourselves that we choose to keep from others, even the people who love and know us best. The heroine is Maria (Maria Onetto), a tireless mother and homemaker who makes sure that her husband Juan’s (Gabriel Goity) favorite fruits and cheeses are always in the fridge. On the eve of her 50th birthday, she serendipitously discovers that she has an intuitive knack for solving jigsaw puzzles, and a new hobby is born. As she devotes more time to puzzling, the dynamics of her family begin to shift, especially her relationship with Juan.
At first, Maria hides the puzzles from her husband, slipping the unfinished landscapes under the living room sofa. But then she learns that a competitive puzzler named Roberto (Arturo Goetz) is seeking a partner for an upcoming tournament. The opportunity proves irresistible to Maria, and so she has something else to hide: she fashions a plausible cover story that allows her to spend the afternoons in her new partner’s elegant apartment. Roberto’s love of puzzles is only part of his appeal. Having just met Maria, he may see her more clearly than Juan can. In the absence of history and expectations, he can freely acknowledge her talents and encourage her burgeoning interests. His rumpled handsomeness and wealth surely don’t hurt either.
The film — which opens in New York on 27 May and is also available on demand — reveals Maria’s perspective in a series of details. While shaky close-ups at the start of Natalia Smirnoff’s film are quite expressive, illustrating her domestic claustrophobia. The scenes at Roberto’s apartment are more naturalistic, imbued with a golden, autumnal light. Here and elsewhere, Maria’s epiphanies are scored by mystical-sounding interludes, sound cues that jolt us out of the story, distracting from the intimate mood.
Maria’s changing focus, of course, affects Juan. Though he knows nothing of Roberto, he grows increasingly hostile. Yet his concerns are motivated, and the film shows that he’s not bad, but confused. As Maria becomes secretive and more independent, he recognizes her less and less. For his marriage to survive, he must learn to accept Maria’s transformation, and his growing pains are sensitively rendered.
And, just as Juan is no monster, Maria is no saint, deceiving her family to pursue her own desires. If Maria’s methods aren’t always fair or ethical, it’s difficult not to identify with Maria’s fight to safeguard this precious new part of herself. The film invites us to ask ourselves where the line exists between keeping something private and keeping something secret.
The question is here focused through Maria’s pursuit of an essentially solitary pursuit. Smirnoff shows the sensual pleasures puzzling offers Maria. As she runs her fingers through a box filled with pieces, she admires the many colors and shapes and can’t resist a smile when one snaps into its proper place with that satisfying click. It’s then that the weariness of Maria’s face melts into a plain, serene beauty. Sitting alone at her kitchen table, engaged in her puzzle, Maria is transported.