Writer-director Matías Piñeiro is far from the first filmmaker to tackle a string of William Shakespeare adaptations, and he’s doubtlessly far from the last. Orson Welles had his, Akira Kurosawa had his, Kenneth Branagh continues to have his… More than 400 years since the world’s most famous playwright passed, his work permanently resides on the stage, the screen, the page, and even the recording studio. Take pop-country anomaly Kacey Musgraves’ newest album star-crossed, for example: A self-described Shakespearean tragedy in three acts, its accompanying film even opens with an excerpt from Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) to drive home the point. With so many different takes and only a finite number of plays to choose from, it can be pretty challenging to set oneself apart from the crowd. Piñeiro has done it before, however, and with Isabella, his latest Shakespeare-inspired, Shakespeare-adjacent, Shakespeare-influenced film, he shows that he’s still one of the most noteworthy names in the world of Bard-based artistry (and beyond).
As an expectant mother and a devoted teacher, Mariel (María Villar) hasn’t been pursuing many acting roles lately. It’s not that she wouldn’t be interested in returning to the stage she once frequented if the right part came along, it’s just… who has the time? (Or the money?) There’s the auditions, the waiting, the callback, the follow-up. And what if she got the part? Think of the rehearsals, the long nights spent perfecting the scenes, the nightly performances, and all with a day job and a baby on the way. These potential pitfalls are obvious to Mariel, so it comes as quite a surprise when her stage director brother (Pablo Segal) puts her name down on the list of potential replacements for the part of Isabella in his production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. More surprising is the fact that, in spite of the challenges, she actually seems eager to audition.
In the midst of preparing for the audition — with the help of a little insider information from her brother — Mariel runs into an old friend from college, Luciana (Agustina Muñoz). She’s a seasoned actress who has built a successful theater career, and she has even rehearsed the Isabella part from Measure for Measure before. (As it turns out, she’s also romantically involved with Mariel’s brother, a married man.) When Mariel asks Luciana to convince her brother to loan her some money so she can afford to audition, Luciana not only agrees, but also offers her help to Mariel run lines to prep for her audition. At first, it seems as though Luciana performs this generous gesture out of the kindness of her heart, but it’s secretly because she wants to play Isabella, too.
While the words “Shakespeare adaptation” instantly recall mental images like the extravagant style of Welles’ Macbeth (1948), the melodramatic romance of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, or the high-stakes action of Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), Piñeiro’s films — Isabella included — subvert this epic expectation by delivering something much more subtle and subdued than what might be expected. Piñeiro tones down Shakespeare’s patented use of heightened dramatics and intense violence and distills these themes into terse, perfidious dialogue and sharp, impudent glances. It’s a fascinating formal exercise, to be sure, but alas, it doesn’t always translate to the most remarkable moviegoing experience. What’s more, these restrained exchanges don’t unfold chronologically. Isabella’s timeline can hops around between the weeks prior to the audition, the moments immediately preceding it, and long after the production has concluded. There’s no denying this nonlinear structure suits the film’s theme of uncertainty — the viewer is just as unsure of the timeline’s next lurch as the characters are of their lives — but the sober pacing combined with this irregular narrative can quickly make an already-demanding viewing experience feel somewhat laborious.
Isabella also stands out for its cinematography, which takes a simple, static approach to its coverage that allows the viewer to pick up on minute details that would have been lost with a more active camera or a more energetic edit. Shot on digital by frequent Piñeiro collaborator Fernando Lockett, a decent number of scenes take place in two alluring locales: the rich, deep purples of an art installation in progress, and the lush, organic greenery of the Argentinian wilderness. It’s not often you see digital cinematography that’s capable of capturing such a vibrant swatch of colors, and it’s never not enthralling whenever Piñeiro inserts another quick glimpse at them as he transitions between scenes.
In short, Piñeiro’s continued tinkering with Shakespeare’s B-sides proves to be endlessly compelling, if only for their unconventional ingenuity, and Isabella is no different. Despite its shortcomings in its structure and pace, there are few Shakespeare adaptations that look or feel like Isabella: relaxed instead of histrionic, its action propelled forward by microaggressions instead of drawn swords, characters’ emotions portrayed with disconsolate stares instead of grand monologues, all captured through the lens of a languid camera instead of a sweeping, tremulous one. It’s esoteric and conceptually novel, even if it is ultimately flawed as a film. Make no mistake, though: The longer Piñeiro keeps working his way through the entirety of Shakespeare’s catalog, the greater this career-long experiment of his becomes as a whole. Without question, Isabella is an important part of that whole.
Isabella will screen nightly on Sept. 24-26 at the Webster University Film Series.