Abstract
This article interrogates the constraints of micro-budget cinema via a distinctive, non-standard approach to producing, screenwriting, mise en scène and performance in the cinema of Matías Piñeiro. This will extend beyond an auteurist focus to integrate the wider social, financial and cultural modes which shape how he works. More specifically, I will investigate his collaboration with a recurring group of actors, and how his sustained relationships with them reflect a filmmaking culture born out of a specific non-industrial, micro-budget environment. It will also examine his partnership with cinematographer Fernando Locket, and how the demands of micro-budget filmmaking force an intimate collaborative environment, and intertextual play when operating with limited financial resources.

I consider these films as chamber films, as in music. I cannot produce symphonies, and somehow I don’t feel like producing them either … I enjoy having three instruments and experimenting in detail with them. – Matías Piñeiro1

Since the mid 2000s, Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro has forged a distinctive style of considerable beauty and sophistication with slender material resources, a cinema defined more by what it can do, than by what it cannot. In mid 2015, ahead of a retrospective at the Melbourne Cinémathèque, I interviewed him for my weekly film show The Final Cut on Australia’s ABC Radio National2 and exchanged emails subsequently, in which we discussed both the practical aspects of his filmmaking as well as the broader cultural and economic context of his work. These exchanges were part of ongoing research for a doctoral exegesis examining the micro budget models of different filmmakers, via a case-study approach after Munt,3 Murphy,4 and Millard.5

This essay, inspired by this communication as well as the films themselves, will explore the ways that Piñeiro transcends the constraints of micro-budget cinema via a distinctive, non-standard approach to producing, screenwriting, mise en scène and performance. It will go beyond an auteurist focus to explore the wider context within which he works. Specifically, exploring his collaboration with a recurring group of actors, and how his relationships with them reflect a filmmaking culture born out of a specific non-industrial, micro-budget environment. It will also examine his partnership with cinematographer Fernando Locket, and the way their visual language is capable of a particularly rich dramatic tension between on screen and off screen space and different fields of focus within the frame. This signature style is a visual metaphor of the volatile, exciting way the films continually change modes, moving from exterior reality to dream sequences to staged performances, reflecting Piñeiro’s obsession with layers and textures.

Key to this obsession is Piñeiro’s referencing of other texts. His five narrative films to date all contain various nods to other works of art (museums recur as a key location in the first and the most recent), but broadly speaking the first two – El hombre robado (The Stolen Man, 2007) and Todos mienten (They All Lie, 2009) – are inspired by the writings of 19th century Argentine politician and thinker Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, and the last three – Rosalinda (2011), Viola (2012) and La princesa de Francia (The Princess of France, 2014) – are inspired by Shakespeare comedies. These three – part of an ongoing series he refers to as Las Shakespeareadas – will be the main focus of this article.6

In describing these films, Piñeiro prefers the word ‘construction’ to adaptation.7 He is a filmmaker who sees himself building something new with the elements he assembles, rather than rendering homage. As a consequence, he manipulates the source text (or texts) with uninhibited dynamism: cutting, pasting, cross-contaminating and discarding at will. Using another analogy from music, he views the fragments of original text, which are repeated and altered, as ‘variations’.8 He creates a cinema of layers and textures around these fragments, locating thematic resonances and twisting meaning. This essay will examine his approach to intermedial, intertextual cross pollination, and his intricate, expressive inventiveness when it comes to structure and form.

To begin, however, Piñeiro must be placed in context. He emerges on the scene in the wake of Argentina’s vibrant national cinema renaissance in the mid 90s, but he also carves out a path with the help of key international support. His career owes much to local and global influences, so to understand him as a filmmaker, it’s important to survey both.

New Argentine Cinema: Jeonju and the Art of ‘Making Do’

Matías Piñeiro is one of the most widely acclaimed filmmakers to emerge in Argentina in the last decade, and some of this acclaim is no doubt inspired by how much he is able to achieve with so little. He works without a fully resourced grips or lighting department, without professional actors and without the comparative luxury of an eight or ten week shooting schedule that a fully budgeted production enjoys. It is worth noting, however, that he is by no means alone among Argentine filmmakers working with modest resources,9 and that more broadly speaking, the country itself, at least since the economic crisis of 1998-2002 but undoubtedly even before that, is a place where the concept of “making do” is part of everyday life. In fact, as film scholar Joanna Page points out, it is a defining characteristic of the country’s independent filmmaking new wave:

The success of the films associated with New Argentine Cinema was due in large part to their ability to overcome both financial obstacles and a creative impasse, exploring new forms of aesthetic representations, as well as developing alternative methods of film production.10

When Piñeiro emerges as a filmmaker in the mid 2000s, the term “New Argentine Cinema” is a decade old and the films of Lucrecia Martel, Pablo Trapero and others had already “made waves in the independent film festival circuit abroad”.11 Although “New Argentine Cinema” was “too heterogeneous to be called a movement”,12 its blossoming occurred within a specific set of cultural, economic and legislative conditions which lay the groundwork for Piñeiro and others to follow.

The role of government was integral to the expansion and revitalisation of the Argentine film industry in the mid 90s. Though some directors connected with this renaissance were active before this period, the influence of government legislation and support was significant and far reaching enough to spur a marked increase in feature film production – both of the independent kind associated with ‘New Argentine Cinema’ and the more commercial or “industrial” kind – from only eleven films in 1994 to forty four in 2000, with a corresponding market share that had risen tenfold.13 A major turning point occurred in 1994, with the introduction of a raft of legislation dubbed “The New Cinema Law” which significantly expanded the range of taxes and levies on box office and television revenue to be funnelled into film funding. The move bolstered the capacity of the country’s newly renamed peak film body, the Instituto Nacional de Cine y Artes Audiovisuales (INCAA), to finance and promote films, and run its film school.14

INCAA became a significant player in the funding of Argentine films, to the point that in 2009 film scholar Joanna Page wrote that “very few” films were made in Argentina “without loans and grants made available through its funds”.15 That said, a revitalised national film body, operating as both advocate, financer and educator, was just one of several elements that came together to create a hot house environment for new talent. While film scholar Gonzalo Aguilar notes that INCAA was not a completely ubiquitous force, partly because it suffered from sporadic budget restrictions due to Argentina’s economic woes that diminished its ability to meet its responsibilities,16 low budget and experimental filmmakers began to find other ways to finance their productions in the 1990s. Film financing foundations like Fond Sud and Hubert Bals Fund, as well as festivals offering production or development support like Sundance, Mar del Plata (resurrected in 1996 after 26 years) and the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival (BAFICI, founded in 1999 and skewed towards emerging talent) all “encouraged experimentation and risk and also subsidized projects that previously would have had to search for other sources of funding”.17 The new climate gave rise, also, to a new kind of producer, like the prolific Lita Stantic, who were ready to embrace new opportunities and support first films and “new kinds of production”.18

At the same time as there was an increased output of Argentine filmmakers in the 1990s, across mainstream and more experimental cinema, there was a flourishing of cinephile culture, not just in terms of the two significant Argentine festivals, but in the proliferation of magazines and other publications dedicated to criticism,19 and the “large increase” in film students, which accompanied the expansion in the number of film schools.20 At the time of writing her survey of contemporary Argentine film The Cinematic Tango in 2007, Tamara Falicov wrote that two Buenos Aires institutions in particular stood out: the Escuela Nacional de Experimentación y Realización Cinematográfica, or ENERC, run by INCAA, and the Universidad del Cine, or FUC, a private school founded in 1991 by veteran filmmaker, critic and former head of INCAA Manuel Antin. Many of the most celebrated directors of “New Argentine Cinema” passed through these two schools, including Lucrecia Martel and Pablo Trapero (ENERC), and Celina Murga and Lisandro Alonso (FUC).

Into this context of a healthy industry and flourishing cinema culture, Matías Piñeiro studied and later taught at the Universidad del Cine, and has made all his films with the school’s help (the FUC logo has a title card in the opening credits of all his films). In an email interview he described the support as an “informal association” but “fundamental” especially for technical equipment. “If I need a DCP, sound post production, image post production I can go with them”.21 This relationship has allowed him, as prominent Argentine film critic Quintin writes, to work “outside the national funding system”.22 His films to date have not been funded by INCAA, a fact Piñeiro attributes to having always worked as an “amateur”, with a fluid transition from idea to production, and hence never having a script ready far enough in advance of a shoot to submit for funding.23 Like many of his peers, however, he has found support in other places. For example, Rosalinda, Viola and The Princess of France have received financial support, including prize money, from various film festivals such as Santiago in Chile (SANFIC), Buenos Aires (BAFICI), Riviera Maya in Mexico and Jeonju in South Korea.

A closer look at Piñeiro’s relationship with this last festival provides an example of how key international support can be. After he won the Grand Jury prize in Jeonju’s 2008 International competition for The Stolen Man, the festival commissioned his next film, Rosalinda, as part of its 2010 Digital Project (it also chose to support films by James Benning and Denis Côté). Subsequently, the festival provided further assistance via its “Work in Progress” section (eligible only to filmmakers who have already shown at JIFF) for Viola and The Princess of France. This ongoing relationship reflects the transnational nature of much contemporary art cinema, but it also confirms the importance of state support, even if indirectly. Jeonju, a festival with a progressive, avant-garde and outward looking mission, emerged in 2000 as a direct result of “wide-ranging government initiatives” implemented after the country’s transition to democracy in the 1990s that helped kick start South Korea’s New Wave and develop the country’s film culture (a timeline that resembles the Argentine experience).24

Jeanju’s generosity, however, remains too small for Piñeiro to make his films without extra help, even with his modest requirements, and he has had to assemble a patchwork of financial and technical support throughout his career, corresponding to what critic Jens Andermann describes as “a segmented process with different sources of funding” that is characteristic of much Argentine independent cinema since the 90s,25 but could indeed apply to micro-budget filmmaking globally. Piñeiro himself likens the fundraising process to creating Frankenstein’s Monster:

A head from Universidad del Cine, a leg from an award from a festival, a hand from my pocket, a breast from revenues from previous films, a foot from a Work in Progress, etc.26

Explaining the budget on Princess of France in more detail, he says it was made with just $10 000 at the time of shooting, but after festival awards, sales and factoring in the University’s contribution of equipment, the budget was “around $45 000”.27 Although these figures illustrate how Piñeiro is able to attract injections of financial and technical support over the course of the production, they still put the film firmly in the micro-budget category, and such meagre amounts impose severe restrictions on any filmmaker. Piñeiro has managed to respond intuitively and strategically to these material constraints with the help of a recurring group of collaborators.

The ‘Off Off’ Broadway model

Many of the same faces reappear in Piñeiro’s cinema, putting him in a tradition of filmmakers who are identified with an ensemble of actors, from Ingmar Bergman to Mike Leigh. Piñeiro’s casting approach is a direct result of his experience in the Buenos Aires independent theatre scene, which influences his cinema as an alternative working model:

In Buenos Aires the theatre scene is very big, it’s very important. You have like the Broadway scene and the off Broadway and then the off off Broadway. And the people that I work with I met in the off off circuit.28

Aguilar, writing generally about performance in the new crop of independent Argentine films since the 90s – though his words could very well be used to describe Piñeiro’s cinema – observes that “The new cinema transformed the traditional methods of recruiting actors and instituted a reflection on the status of faces, names, and bodies”.29 For Piñeiro, finding actors outside the conventional professional channels reflects his commitment to a highly personal, non-commercial and collaborative way of approaching the filmmaking process, one that requires a different approach to notions of professionalism:

It’s like another way of understanding professionalism…It’s not that they’re doing these films because in the future they will get greater films, they do these films because they like doing them…They’re all actors. Some of them are musicians or also novelists or theatre directors or German teachers. But I have met them by watching their plays in this off off circuit…We are very close friends and we talk about our personal stuff and everything gets a little bit mixed and intense also. But there’s like an energy that we share, that we like being together and we share a same way of producing. I think that some cinema, some independent cinema, has learned from very independent theatre productions. This more community aspect, this small scale, this idea of developing projects through time.30

Working with many of the same actors across different films, Piñeiro has observed how momentum builds, processes become streamlined and rehearsals require less time.31 It is not only a question of expediency, however. He writes scripts, he conceives of characters, with specific actors in mind, and welcomes their input.32 In acknowledging the value of this ongoing collaboration (which is mirrored behind the camera in key technical roles) he and his producer allocate 50% of the shooting budget, future revenues and prize monies to actors and crew, at the same time as forgoing wages for themselves.33 The resulting model is not dissimilar to the non-union shoots of American independents like John Cassavetes and Richard Linklater, and is consistent with micro-budget production methods, where financial resources are far more limited than those available on industrial film productions.

In terms of performative style, Piñeiro has described the tone as a “naturalness that’s not naturalist”.34 His films are marked by a persistent sincerity (even when the characters lie they seem sincere about it), with occasional outbursts of sadness, lust or frustration, but seldom rage or hatred. The characters do not tend to behave in ironic modes, though irony is present in the Shakespearean texts themselves, and even when they are subject to Piñeiro’s defamiliarising tactics they are not really targets of satire or critique. Even Natalia (Romina Paula) in The Princess of France, a desperate character wrongly convinced that an old flame still loves her who features in several scenes that repeat with slight variations, does not become an object of ridicule. The films tend to be quite gentle on the characters.

Piñeiro’s focus on a milieu of educated, culture loving middle class young people has been criticised for its insularity.35 It would also seem out of step with the generation of Argentine filmmakers emerging in the late 90s and early 2000s who, according to Falicov, “in large part does not identify with a European-influenced and inflected culture. Rather, they identify with ethnic minorities and working-class people and project a more varied and heterogeneous face of national identity in Argentina”.36

It is true his films appear to have no interest in issues of class or otherness. Identity politics are absent (though the films are very much explorations of identity and pretence). But it does not follow that Piñeiro’s work is vacuous, nor is it completely disconnected from everyday concerns. Take Natalia (to use Romina Paula’s character in The Princess of France as an example again), putting up hand made posters advertising private lessons for students which she hopes will help her make ends meet. Or Viola and her boyfriend (María Villar and Esteban Bigliardi) who run a DVD home delivery business in Viola, which becomes a device to move the film around the city. It’s true that these more mundane concerns are interwoven with rarefied activities like putting on productions of Shakespeare or conducting university research on an obscure 19th century French painter (The Princess of France), but the combination never seems jarring. Rather than label him insular or elitist, I would argue in favour of critic Chris Lucri’s more appreciative reading of Piñeiro as a creator of “beguiling” filmic worlds, whose Las Shakespeareadas “constitues an expanded, multipart project uniquely satisfying to watch unfold, as each pocket-sized nodule clicks seamlessly into the major corpus.”37 Perhaps the best way to approach Piñeiro, indeed, is to demand less of his films as if they were reflections on the world, and appreciate them as collective self portraits. As he says himself, “I realize now that these very fictional films we are still developing may end up being a dense document of how are we growing up together.”38

Piñeiro: Mise en scène and style

I try to emphasise this idea of mixture. Ambiguity’s not that you don’t know. It’s just like something is this and also this other thing. And it has to do with this mix, that it’s not completely done, it’s like in motion in a way. – Matías Piñeiro39

The idea of motion, both figurative and literal, is one that’s important to Piñeiro’s work. In a review of Viola for La Nación, critic Javier Porta Fouz writes that “everything flows”, and the characters are movement incarnate.40 Shifting to digital from celluloid for Las Shakespeareadas, Piñeiro saw a problem. Referring to the digital image as “a rigid grid”, as opposed to more dynamic celluloid with “a grain that moves all the time”, he was convinced that the camerawork itself had “a greater need for movement and developing layers in the space” (see Figure 1). One solution was to work with the camera more slightly above or below the characters in order to capture “more surfaces” as opposed to shooting at eye level (see Figures 2 and 3), where “you are like just photographing a background and a foreground.” 41

Matías Piñeiro

Fig. 1: Viola

Matías Piñeiro

Fig. 2: The Princess of France

Matías Piñeiro

Fig. 3: The Princess of France

A recurring motif in his cinema across the film and digital work is the extended take, shot on a longer lens and usually favouring close ups of faces. Nicholas Rombes writes about the long take in digital cinema as a response to the “deep storage capabilities” of cameras. But long takes are present in both Piñeiro’s celluloid and digital films and are more of a deliberate strategy than a bi-product of a technological shift. His long take shots are often intricate, poetic depictions of on-screen action, and reflect a sophisticated mise en scène with complex blocking of actors and positioning of foreground and background elements. There is nothing of the “hard-eyed realism” Rombes talks about.42 These shots, as they unfold, will often adjust and reframe the on screen action several times, like a sequence of different shots without cuts. The positioning of the edge of frame is an ever-important part of how these images work to create tension – especially between what we can and can’t see. Often a character will be talking off-screen, or disappear out of shot mid sentence, leaving the focus on someone listening or reacting, rather than talking. Piñeiro says that cinematographer Fernando Lockett, who has shot all the films, encouraged him to cover action in longer shots, rather than cut between different set ups.43 This seems to have encouraged a sophisticated mise en scène that’s always in a state of flux, evoking what Adrian Martin refers to as “elasticity”, or the “filling and emptying” of the frame “using bodies and objects as significant props,” but also “the changing distances, close or far, installed between the major, physical points in a scene (such as its principal characters).”44

The opening “prologue” shot of Rosalinda is one such example of elasticity. It features Maria Villar talking on a mobile phone, and begins in a backlit extreme close up, in which the actress is not much more than an outline of hair, a nose and a cheekbone, and her soft voice is in our ear (see Figure 4). As she moves away from the camera we realise she is sobbing, though the dialogue reveals little of what exactly is being discussed (she is mostly monosyllabic). We now see a wider shot of her, and more of the location, and we notice in the background there’s a river. The dramatic tension implicit in the depiction of a phone conversation in which we can only hear the person we see in frame is given an added kick by the fact Villar reveals little of herself, and spends most of the scene with her back to camera (she is wearing a shoulderless dress, and so much of what we see of her is hair and a slender, bear back). Then, unexpectedly, a woman in a rowboat crosses frame in the back of shot (see Figure 5) and Villar gives her a friendly wave. Nothing is explained in any overt way, yet there are a number of visual ideas, not to mention questions, in this single set up, which goes from the intimate personal space of the main character to a view of her that is distant and enigmatic. Piñeiro and Lockett achieve this dynamism, this movement, with an economical use of the camera. His films, especially Las Shakespeareadas, are testament to the utility of simple pans and tilts.

Matías Piñeiro

Fig. 4: Rosalinda

Matías Piñeiro

Fig. 5: Rosalinda

Undoubtedly this kind of coverage can have time saving benefits for filmmakers working with limited resources. Shooting a scene with multiple set ups requires time to move equipment and adjust for light, as well incorporating a degree of repetition, as the same action is captured from different angles. But for Piñeiro, such long take shots represent an aesthetic conviction as much as, if not more, than an economic one. He is interested in making films that explore a grammar outside of classical Hollywood norms like shot/reverse shot (an obsession he shares with a long line of great filmmakers, including many working today, from fellow Argentine Lisandro Alonso to Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang). As Piñeiro puts it:

I like to undo like the traditional way of seeing things, of how cinema portrays a conversation and so on. And I think that it’s also like looking for a detour, of how to tell a dream, how to tell a conversation, how to tell a separation, how to narrate that. It’s something that we have been developing for almost ten years. I remember very clearly when I was shooting and thinking “ok we can do this shot from page one till page two but suddenly maybe can you pan left after this and like stay in this corner and maybe then when she comes in like follow her and then stay a little.” Every time I was asking him “can you do this, can you do this?” and Fernando’s always saying “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.” So that’s how somehow the shots were getting longer and longer.45

Arguably his most spectacular shot so far is the opening scene from The Princess of France. The six-minute long shot starts with a woman on a balcony at night, several floors above the city, putting on goalkeeping gloves and answering a call from someone in the street below. She calls out she is coming, and the camera slowly drifts in the direction of the voices, across a dark cityscape and down to a group of people in a concrete football field (see Figure 3). A game of five-aside soccer ensues, which slowly transforms into a choreographed set of movements, ending in a group forming and one player being isolated, then chased from the field. It is a stunning example of a moment of spectacle that essentially, from a camera point of view, is a simple tilt and pan shot, all set the music of Schumann’s Symphony Number 1.

This shot is also emblematic of Piñeiro and Lockett’s knack for locating arresting images of landscapes and urbanscapes. Whether in the shots of Maria Villar riding her bike through busy streets to deliver DVDs in Viola, the sequences set in the concrete and brick grounds of a slightly rundown sporting club in The Princess of France, or the muddy river in which boats float by and people go swimming in Rosalinda, Piñeiro’s cinema has a vivid, sensual idea of the world surrounding the characters.

Although much has been made of the link between Italian neo-realism and “New Argentine Cinema”,46 this is not about evoking a realist context where a filmmaker might place signs of class tensions or embed references to current events. It is a version of the world that is nonetheless palpable and “real”, whose energy and chaos encroach upon what we see in the frame, just like a Shakespeare text does. For a filmmaker so apparently disinterested in the “real world” there’s always a sense of it on screen and off. Phones ring in Piñeiro films and the calls leave a mark, people come knocking at doors, they go putting up posters, they run small businesses, they steal and sell on black markets, they turn up for a shift, they study, they read, they make music, they make theatre.

All this texture is the product of Piñeiro’s obsession with creating a cinema of layers – not just layers of activity but layers within the image, on the soundtrack, within the script. But perhaps most explicitly, his cinema is about layers of text. In particular, when looking at his most recent films, it’s about the relationship between his characters and Shakespeare’s plays. Which is not to suggest he is concerned with conventional adaptation or notions of fidelity or authenticity. He is, rather, interested in the way one text can be placed over another – in a way that both clashes and compliments, but most importantly, in a way that creates something new. 

Fictive Provocations

Putting aside the politics implicit in making a micro-budget film outside of industrial cinematic models, Piñeiro’s work contains no overt political message. In a broad sense, he is very much in line with a widespread attitude among independent Argentine filmmakers from the 90s on, and different from the overtly political, leftist filmmakers of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Reflecting on some of the recurring characteristics of more recent cinema, Aguilar composes a list:

Open endings, an absence of emphasis and allegories, more ambiguous characters…an omission of national issues that provide context, a rejection of identity and political demands: all of these decisions, that in a major or minor part, are detected in these films, make stories more opaque, that instead of directing us, open us to the game of interpretation.47

In this context, Piñeiro’s unconventional approach to Shakespeare is not surprising:

They are not adaptations, because I’m not interested in pursuing an entire work. I am interested in the work of delimitation, of decontextualisation, to operate on that point, that element, focus on it, to obtain a synthesis of it to build my movie. They are fictive provocations.48

There are several ways to describe Piñeiro’s approach to Shakespeare. Because all of the films are about characters who are involved, at some point, in either rehearsing or putting on a play, they fit into a category that film scholar Thomas Leitch describes as “(meta)commentary or deconstruction”. That is, films that are “not so much adaptations as films about adaptation…whose subject is the problems involved in producing texts.” He gives the example of Looking For Richard (Al Pacino, 1996), and Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002).49

That said, the line in the films between fantasy and reality is often not clear. For example, Rosalinda unfolds among a group of friends in a holiday house surrounded by forest, and begins with two women reading from a well-thumbed copy of As You Like It while walking through the trees (much of Shakespeare’s play is also set in a wood). When they meet a man in the forest, no explanation is given for the fact that he immediately inserts himself into this make-shift rehearsal.

It’s an example of how Piñeiro’s cinema hovers in a grey zone where realism is constantly subverted and called into question. As Jonathan Romney puts it, referencing the same scene:

The divide between actors and characters soon dissolves and these young people seem to be at once in the play and in present-day Argentina; early on, a worker who happens to be busy up a tree is pressed into service as a Shakespearean forester, and slips into the part without a visible transition.50

Add to this ambiguity Piñeiro’s manipulation of Shakespeare’s text, his stealthy introduction of strange slippages and mutations. There is a conversation midway through Viola, in which the titular character (Maria Villar) meets a woman named Cecilia (Agustina Muñoz) who is a member of a theatre ensemble that we have seen earlier in the film performing Twelfth Night. It’s a mysterious scene that transforms with the arrival of a third woman, and then later reveals itself – at least in part – to be a dream, but what Cecilia tells Viola about how the troupe edit and even blend different Shakespeare plays could be a description of Piñeiro’s own inspired disregard for the integrity of the original text. The following is the subtitled English translation of the conversation, after Cecilia reveals she is performing Shakespeare:

Viola: Which Shakespeare?

Cecilia: Many, about seven.

Viola: Seven?

Cecilia: Yes it’s a mix of plays.

Viola: Do you learn all seven?

Cecilia: No, we don’t do the whole plays. In fact we only take a couple of lines from each.

This idea of mixing different Shakespeare plays was first explored by Piñeiro when he directed the same actresses in 2011 at the Centro Cultural Rojas in Buenos Aires. That production not only became the basis for Viola, it also served as an extended eight month rehearsal, which enabled such a short, ten day film shoot.51

In Piñeiro’s films, the manipulation of the source text manifests in various ways, by condensing scenes and jumping around in the original timeline, changing the gender of characters and even substituting them. There’s a striking example of his manipulations earlier in Viola where Agustina Muñoz’s character Cecilia, in a kind of erotic experiment, sets out to seduce a fellow member of the theatre troupe. Piñeiro plays out the seduction scene using dialogue from Act 3, Scene 3 of The Merchant of Venice, giving Muñoz the lion share of a male character’s lines (Bassanio). He then loops this dialogue, as if the women are rehearsing the same passage over and over again, only he each time he rewinds back a little less, so that the passage becomes shorter and shorter. This is perhaps the most emotionally intense example of Piñeiro’s use of repetition, which becomes a prominent narrative device in the two most recent films. On occasion the repetition involves whole scenes that play out and then recur with significant and minor changes (as happens at two points in The Princess of France, each involving Natalia repeating dialogue to rotating characters with slightly different outcomes). It’s a technique akin to the musical concept of the ‘variation’ and is not dissimilar to the way the South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo repeats and modulates the same sequences and storylines. The seduction scene is a condensed example of this idea (layered over the concept of a rehearsal). Employing less than a handful of edits and a floating camera so the underlying erotic tension of the scene builds with minimal interruption – then adding a ringing doorbell from an unseen visitor that further exacerbates a sense of urgency (Piñeiro’s ear for rhythm is evident through his films’ dialogue, but it extends to sound effects as well) – the tension finally climaxes in a kiss.

It’s an exciting scene, in formal cinematic terms as much as emotional ones, and also an example of how one medium (cinema) is able to reference another (theatre) without compromising itself. Of course, there have been many great filmmakers, as Adrian Martin points out, who, from the 1970s on, embraced “a certain kind of arch-theatricality in cinema”, from Fassbinder to Rivette. Martin sees Piñeiro’s work continuing this tendency “to paradoxically seek a progressive mode of cinema through the intensive use of theatrical devices.”52 Rivette is perhaps the most obvious precursor, for the way he also took liberties with theatrical sources by fragmenting and mirroring them. A film like L’amour fou (1969) could almost be a Piñeiro film: made with actors from the Parisian avant-garde theatre scene under “severe budgetary restrictions”, it’s about a theatre troupe – and its director’s troubled marriage – in which the themes of Racine’s play Andromaque find reflection in the “real life” away from the stage.53 As a filmmaker, Piñeiro does not display the same interest in improvisation as Rivette does here and later in his career, but the way he references a theatrical text (or texts) is similar. The line between fiction and reality, character and performer, is there to be negotiated and blurred. In other words, Piñeiro’s motivations for “adapting” Shakespeare are chiefly about experimentation. He is not concerned with borrowing Shakespeare’s tried-and-tested plot mechanics in order to make a compelling film. As Quintin puts it, “if there’s a plot at all, it’s thin or irrelevant. Nobody dies and nothing very dramatic ever happens in a Piñeiro film.” 54

While this statement was made before Piñeiro’s 2014 film The Princess of France, and may not strictly apply to that film, it is still reasonable to assume that the director is much less interested in the high drama and comedy of the plays he references and more interested in the thematic suggestions they offer, or the way they linger in the air, even when they are no longer present. As all three Shakespeare films are inspired by romantic comedies (which are playful, ironic texts in their own right involving cross-dressing and criss-crossing arrows of desire) their residues provide an extra layer, either as counterpoint or as reinforcement, to the complex romantic dynamics in the films proper.

For example, Shakespeare disappears from Rosalinda from about halfway through, and the film instantly transforms into a sparse, languid drama where various characters hook up and flirt in the humid summer afternoon, before reuniting around an outdoor table to play a whodunit parlour game in the evening. All seem at ease except Maria Villar’s Rosalinda, and attentive viewers may at this point recall the film’s brief prologue: a teary phone conversation that suggested she’d suffered some kind of emotional tragedy. Was this a break up? Is she suffering still? The film is designed to make you forget this prologue, especially because the rest of the first half shows the character reading the role of Rosalinda from As You Like It – a triumphant, assertive character who falls in love with a man and, via a convoluted, daring series of cross-dressing manoeuvres eventually gets him. But it’s this difference between the Rosalinda of Shakespeare and the Rosalinda of the film’s “real life” that lends the character’s loneliness, and the film itself, a rather potent, melancholy irony.

In The Princess of France, the main allusion is to Love’s Labour’s Lost (though the film also references Henry V and As You Like It), Shakespeare’s play about a King and his noblemen who swear off women for three years only to come undone when they fall in love with a French princess and her entourage. Piñeiro alludes to its themes of heart versus head dilemmas and exile, not to mention the death of a patriarch, in the film’s conceit of a young theatre director named Victor (played by another Piñeiro regular, Julian Larquier Tallarini) who returns to Buenos Aires after a year spent in Mexico overseeing his recently deceased father’s activities. Ostensibly Victor’s in town to direct an unconventional radio production of a cycle of Shakespeare plays with his old collaborators, wanting to focus on work, but he finds himself dragged in to various romantic entanglements in the process involving his girlfriend, an ex, a lover and a new friend. The imprint of Loves Labour’s Lost is subtle, but unmistakable, even if, in Piñeiro’s hands, the elements are jumbled, manipulated and reconceived so as to suggest a new object (though one that’s not totally stable, or definitive). There’s an aspect of volatility to Piñeiro’s films that infuse them with a sense of danger or risk, as if they could at any time fall apart under the pressure of all the manipulating and re-inventing.

Conclusion

When I decide to put my hands into Shakespeare I am not doing it because it is cheap, because I could do many other things that I don’t do – Matías Piñeiro55

It’s tempting, but also dangerous, when examining the work of a micro-budget filmmaker, to view all their choices via the lens of financial scarcity. To draw a direct line from mise en scène to money, or lack thereof. It would certainly be a disservice to Piñeiro, a filmmaker who clearly has an intuitive approach to his work and has refined his filmmaking process in an organic way. I have tried to show how his work answers the challenge of creating a rigorous film style on a budget with a resounding affirmation of what cinema can do. His films do not flaunt an aesthetic poverty or make excuses for poor technique (out of focus camera, unintentionally wobbly, handheld camera movements, poor location sound etc). They are anything but the “depressingly predictable” films made “with little consideration for the work’s overall shape or form”56 as described by Adrian Martin in an essay bemoaning the state of low budget cinema in 2006 (the year before Piñeiro’s first feature).

This article has aspired to put these achievements in perspective, not just by celebrating his individual skill as an auteur, but as a producer capable of forging key creative relationships in front of and behind the camera. Piñeiro emerges in a time of great ferment in Argentine cinema, within a relatively supportive legislative and bureaucratic environment. It cannot be underestimated how important a broader film culture is to the development of talent, and there has been a proliferation of film criticism, film schools and festivals that happened in conjunction with his own formation as a director. It is significant that a nation like Argentina, whose forefathers’ wanted to make it “a European country within Latin America”57 should give birth to a filmmaker that so knowingly and explicitly creates an intertextual, hybrid form of cinema. During my interview with Piñeiro, discussing certain characteristics of Argentine culture and the way his films embodied a type of hybrid sensibility, he observed that Argentine identity, with its strong European immigrant roots, is a “mixture” in which “ you show all the stitches” – the opposite to the American concept in which the past is forgotten in order to forge a new beginning.58 I put it to him there was a parallel between his cinema and the city of Buenos Aires, with its European inspired architecture built far away in the Southern Hemisphere:

Matías Piñeiro: When I hear people saying that Buenos Aires is like Paris, I understand why they say it but then it’s not… (I’m interested) in the ‘as if’, in the mask, more than in the actual Paris.

Jason Di Rosso: It’s a strange reflection, isn’t it? A reflection in a strange, almost distorted mirror.

Matías Piñeiro: Yeah, exactly. The distortion is what I’m interested in. And that’s why Shakespeare is interesting and translating it and taking theatre but doing film and being like…a little bit profanic (sic) with these objects, with these plays, with these characters.59

None of the above is to deny that Piñeiro’s cinema bears similarities to that of other directors working in different countries, like Hong Sang-soo and Mexico’s Nicolás Pereda. He is not the first or the last to employ fragmented, shifting narratives and blur layers of text, and further research to expand these parallels is certainly needed.

In conclusion, however, I want to emphasise that Piñeiro has managed to find a way to work within a scale that allows him to excel. A pragmatic streak is invaluable to any director, especially one working at the micro-budget level, and just like the truism that “casting is half the battle”, choosing projects wisely, commensurate with skills and resources, is also incredibly important. Piñeiro’s instinct, in this sense, has been impeccable so far. His secret is that he knows not to make symphonies. He makes chamber films.

 

This article has been peer reviewed.

 

Endnotes

  1. Matías Piñeiro, Email correspondence (September 19, 2015).
  2. Matías Piñeiro, interview by Jason Di Rosso, The Final Cut, ABC RN, Audio, April 24, 2015.
  3. Alex Munt, “’Am I crazy to make a film for only $100,000 or am I crazy not to?’ Kriv Stenders goes Micro-budget Digital for Boxing Day,” Senses of Cinema 46 (March 2008)
  4. J.J. Murphy, Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work (New York: Continuum, 2007).
  5. Kathryn Millard, Screenwriting in a Digital Era (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014).
  6. Rosalinda is about a group of friends staying in a country house and rehearsing As You Like It, all of whom become influenced by the play’s romantic power. Viola (2012) is about a theatre troupe in Buenos Aires performing Twelfth Night (with some cross-pollination from The Merchant of Venice) but it’s also about a couple who may be falling out of love. The Princess of France (2014) takes inspiration for its title from Love’s Labour’s Lost, but is about a young theatre director who returns to Buenos Aires and becomes mired in a complex set of romantic relationships as he tries to record radio adaptations of various Shakespeare plays.
  7. Steven Erickson, “Melting With The World,” Sight & Sound, vol. 23, no. 9 (September 2013): p. 57.
  8. Javier Porta Fouz, “Las variaciones infinitas de Matías Piñeiro,” La Nacion, 27 July 2013.
  9. This is of course not specific to Argentina. Other low budget cinema practices have flourished in Hollywood film noir, Italian neo-realism and independent genre filmmakers like Roger Corman.
  10. Joanna Page, Crisis and Capitalism in Contemporary Argentine Cinema (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 18.
  11. Tamara Falicov, The Cinematic Tango (London: Wallflower Press, 2007), p. 130.
  12. Page, p. 4.
  13. Page, p. 13.
  14. Falicov, pp. 89-93.
  15. Page, p. 13.
  16. Gonzalo Aguilar, Other Worlds: New Argentine Film, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)
  17. Aguilar, p. 13.
  18. Aguilar, p. 13.
  19. Falicov, p. 129.
  20. Falicov, pp. 116-117.
  21. Matías Piñeiro, Email correspondence (September 19, 2015).
  22. Quintin, “Role Models: The Films of Matías Piñeiro,Cinema Scope 52 (2012).
  23. Juan Pablo Russo, “Matías Piñeiro: ‘El texto es un punto de partida que funciona como un estímulo para ver que puedo hacer yo en el cine’,” EscribiendoCine (28 August 2015).
  24. Mette Hjort, “On The Plurality of Cinematic Transnationalism” in World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, Nataša Durovicová and Kathleen E. Newman, eds. (London: Routledge, 2009), p. 25.
  25. Jens Andermann, New Argentine Cinema (London: I.B. Taurus & Co Ltd, 2012), p. 9.
  26. Matías Piñeiro, Email correspondence (September 19, 2015)
  27. Matías Piñeiro, Email correspondence (September 19, 2015)
  28. Matías Piñeiro, interview by Jason Di Rosso, The Final Cut, ABC RN, Audio, April 24, 2015.
  29. Aguilar, p. 15.
  30. Matías Piñeiro, interview by Jason Di Rosso, The Final Cut, ABC RN, Audio, April 24, 2015.
  31. Rolando Gallego, “Entrevista: Matías Piñeiro ‘No soy de los que se sientan con la página en blanco a ver si se cae una idea’,” El Espectador Avezado, (25 August 2015).
  32. Javier Porta Fouz, “Las variaciones infinitas de Matías Piñeiro,” La Nacion (27 July 2013).
  33. Matías Piñeiro, Email correspondence (September 19, 2015)
  34. Antonio Arenas, “Matías Piñeiro: ‘La trama no me pone grilletes, hay que evitar que la trama mate el ritmo de la película,’” Magnolia, (July-August 2014).
  35. El zapato de Herzhog, “El cineasta Argentino y la tradicion: debate Nicolas Prividera – Mariano Llinas (primera parte),” El zapato de Herzhog, (30 October 2014).
  36. Falicov, p. 133.
  37. Chris Luscri, “So Full Of Shapes Is Fancy: Matías Piñeiro’s Viola,Senses of Cinema 74 (April 2015).
  38. Pardo Live, “Directly from Buenos Aires … El señor William Shakespeare,Pardo Live (6 August 2014).
  39. Matías Piñeiro, interview by Jason Di Rosso, The Final Cut, ABC RN, Audio, April 24, 2015, http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/finalcut/matc3adas-pic3b1eiro-interview/6416746
  40. Javier Porta Fouz, “Viola”, La Nacion (1 August 2013).
  41. Matías Piñeiro, interview by Jason Di Rosso, The Final Cut, ABC RN, Audio, April 24, 2015.
  42. Nicholas Rombes, Cinema in the Digital Age, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), p. 38.
  43. Matías Piñeiro, interview by Jason Di Rosso, The Final Cut, ABC RN, Audio, April 24, 2015.
  44. Adrian Martin, Mise en Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art, (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), p.59.
  45. Matías Piñeiro, interview by Jason Di Rosso, The Final Cut, ABC RN, Audio, April 24, 2015.
  46. Page, pp. 34-35.
  47. Falicov, p. 130.
  48. Jaime, “La seducción del cine” (translated by author), Caiman cuadernos de cine (June 2013).
  49. Thomas Leitch, Film Adaptation & Its Discontents, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2007), p. 111.
  50. Jonathan Romney, “Film of the Week: The Princess of France,” Film Comment (29 June 2015).
  51. Javier Porta Fouz, “Las variaciones infinitas de Matías Piñeiro,” La Nacion, 27 July 2013.
  52. Martin, p. 82.
  53. Mary Wiles, Contemporary Film Directors: Jacques Rivette, (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2012), p.42.
  54. Quintin, “Role Models: The Films of Matías Piñeiro.”
  55. Matías Piñeiro, Email correspondence (September 19, 2015)
  56. Adrian Martin, “Kind of a Revolution, and Kind of Not: Digital Low-Budget Cinema in Australia Today,Scan (October 2006).
  57. Falicov, p. 57.
  58. Matías Piñeiro, interview by Jason Di Rosso, The Final Cut, ABC RN, Audio, April 24, 2015,
  59. Matías Piñeiro, interview by Jason Di Rosso, The Final Cut, ABC RN, Audio, April 24, 2015.

About The Author

Jason Di Rosso is a film critic at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and host of the weekly radio show The Final Cut. He is currently completing a Doctorate of Creative Arts in the School of Communication, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney.