Viola (2012)

1 04 2014

Most of what I’ve read about Matías Piñeiro’s third feature places the latest work of this young filmmaker alongside Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer. While I see the similarities, I hesitate to proclaim that he’s working in the same territory as those filmmakers. To begin with, I think they’re already plenty different to begin with, and thus even a conscious melding of their styles would produce something unique. Sure, the characters are loquacious like Rohmer’s, and yes they’re actors like many of the characters in Rivette’s film. Aside from the carefree sensation that the latter filmmaker evokes, it’s hard to pinpoint more similarities. While Piñeiro reminds me of these two masters at times, this film is reflective of a filmmaker trying something completely new and the result is something that even when frustrating, is utterly hypnotic.


A group of actresses are preparing for a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. They perform it in front of a small group, primarily composed of males, and giggle about said audience’s lecherous eyes afterwards. They continue to practice afterwards, until the point where their interactions seems to be centered around the play’s dialogue. The lines repeat, but every time they’re spoken they are granted a new context. This group runs into Viola, who lives with her boyfriend and makes money by selling bootleg DVDs. Her relationship with said boyfriend seems to have reached a state of homeostasis, but when she discusses her relationship with the actresses, they question the authenticity of his actions. The problem, they say, lies in the fact that he’s performing romantic gestures, particularly giving her a kiss after he arrives home. Their romance has become automated, which is ultimately a sign of its death. Viola goes home and anticipates a more spontaneous display of affection from her lover.


Unfortunately, my description of the film’s narrative makes it read as though it unfolds like any other. If cinema is a language to be used to describe what words fail to, then Viola is a runaway success because any description of this film is a great disservice. The aforementioned comparison to Rivette gives one a general idea of the film’s unique structure and attitude but even Rivette’s playfulness seemed grounded by reality. If Rivette’s world is one where the characters are shooting the breeze and unbound by any typical narrative functions, then Piñeiro’s world where the characters are similarly easy-going are not just free of conventional narrative, but of gravity itself. Maybe this is hyperbole, but my suggestion is one that aptly describes the film: it manages to feel free and weightless in a way that might not easily digestible, but again, it is so unique.


The frustration I feel from trying to describe Viola is indicative of the frustration that comes from watching it. I feel that its audience will inevitably be limited to “learned” viewers, not necessarily ones conversant in Shakespeare but at least viewers that want to feel something different. Part of the film’s novelty, a word I’m not using negatively, comes from the fact that it doesn’t feel like anything else I’ve ever seen. Of course, one must crave this unique experience or they will likely be overwhelmed with boredom. Yes, there’s been slow art films and there’s been films “where nothing happens” but that doesn’t quite describe Viola. A lot actually happens in this film, but the way it communicates to the audience is not particularly accommodating and what it is communicating isn’t exactly clear. Mystifying might be the best way to describe it because it is as fascinating as it is frustrating, but it also never feels heavy.


The film’s running time barely eclipses the hour mark, which doesn’t give much time for fully realized characters. They’re wonderfully opaque, risking coming off as slight. We learn very little about Viola except that she might be subconsciously unhappy with her relationship and that she makes money from pirating DVDs. The fact that the film’s other half is devoted to actual performers is curious. Walter Benjamin suggested many years ago that photographing (or reproducing) a performance took away from its aura. I think Piñeiro is bringing this rather old (but canonical) argument back into the present. I find his meditation, maybe just because it is new, much more interesting that Benjamin’s suggestion. I like to think of it as flattening the performance, the “aura” is lost but it feels more pragmatic. Viola’s pirating isn’t critiqued in a trite way, but she comes face to face with an actual performer. Theoretically, someone whose work she’s profiting from. It’s another degree of reproduction, but  there is an “aura” in the film itself that I don’t think that Benjamin or any of his Frankfurt peers could have anticipated in cinema. I’m not sure if that answers any of the questions that reproducing performances poses, but Piñeiro gives us something much more exciting: the realization that film isn’t dead, it is alive and well and as difficult to pin down as ever.






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