‘Isabella’ Review: Audition of a Lifetime

The New York-based Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro has carved out an exclusive niche: Each of his fractured, low-stakes narratives is tied to a different Shakespeare play. His last feature, “Hermia & Helena,” involved a Spanish translation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” His latest, “Isabella,” revolves around two actresses, Mariel (María Villar) and Luciana (Agustina Muñoz), auditioning for the part of Isabella in “Measure for Measure.”

If Piñeiro’s Shakespeare citations have sometimes freighted slight stories with unearned significance, “Isabella” finds him expanding his formal ambition. The movie courts confusion, at first: Sorting out the characters and timeline isn’t easy. Piñeiro sometimes shoots dialogue with the actors (or their faces) offscreen. The chronology is scrambled, with Mariel’s state — she is shown visibly pregnant or not, or else with her young son after he’s been born — providing an important marker.

While the pieces more or less fall into place, trying to solve the mysteries of “Isabella” may be missing the point. The opening voice-over concerns a ritual in which a person must decide whether to cast stones into water, and the film itself seems to exist in a suspended state. The pivotal color is purple (somewhere between red and blue). A motif of rectangles that evokes Josef Albers’s “Homage to the Square” suggests infinite regress.

Rhymed scenes and repeated lines contribute to the sense of indeterminacy. Both women are capable of stepping into the same part; acting is presented as, for some people, the same thing as living. Everything in “Isabella” unfolds in parallel — measure for measure, if you will.

Isabella
Not rated. In Spanish, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes. In theaters.

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