The phrase “deceptively simple” gets tossed around a lot, usually as a way of signifying that something large and ostentatious can be pared down into a more essential non-complexity. It’s tempting to call Viola “deceptively simple.” But in truth, the film merits an opposing, if perhaps even more redundant, superlative. Both its effortless pleasure and the budding mastery of Argentine director Matías Piñeiro proceed, in no small part, from structural subtlety. Viola is deceptively complex.
Piñeiro’s third feature unfolds in present-day Buenos Aires, though the city itself takes a backseat. Unlike fellow South American upstart Kleber Mendonça Filho, whose impressive debut Neighboring Sounds, is almost neurotically attentive to the pulse (and, especially, the sound design) of urban experience, Piñeiro seems more drawn to the private experiences of his mostly female cast. Viola’s characters—members of an all-female Shakespeare performance troupe and the titular courier (María Villar) who finds herself welcomed into their ranks—seem attuned to something other than the rhythms of everyday life: traversing highways by bicycle, getting lost, waiting out rainstorms inside of vans, enjoying mid-afternoon beers, lingering as time passes by. Viola may feel in places like a porous, loosey-goosey lensing of ambling quarter-lifer culture, but there’s a meticulousness in place to guide its sauntering narrative, one which never undermines that warm-fuzzy feeling that you’re just watching young, attractive, intelligent, easy-going people go about their day-to-day affairs.
After an establishing shot tracking Villar on her bicycle, Viola cuts rather abruptly to its cast of thespians. They’re staging a strikingly reinterpreted adaptation of The Twelfth Night in which characters’ names have been changed, and where the all-female ensemble functions as a role-reversal of the Bard’s all-male casts. More radically, the play also sifts through other Shakespearean dramas, incorporating pilfered snatches of dialogue, much of which spills over into Viola’s diegesis proper as its actresses shift gracefully from performance to rehearsal to something in between.
This fluidity is reflected in Viola’s winding narrative thread, which (as in David Wain’s Role Models) sees characters reconciling personal dramas within the constructs of fictive identities and scenarios. Piñeiro moves from actresses staging a reinterpretation of a play featuring a character called Viola to a character called Viola. Piñeiro’s Viola begins to find her footing in a community she seems to mostly meander through after being invited to join up with the performers to replace a departing cast member, effectively actualizing her role as both Shakespeare’s Viola and Piñeiro’s, seeming more herself as she arrives closer to her literary namesake.
In essentially offering up The Twelfth Night as a hazy Shakespearean mash-up, Viola isn’t so much deeply disrespecting notions of ownership, authorship, etc., as charitably redefining them. The film’s own Viola—like Shakespeare’s, shipwrecked (though only metaphorically) by the languid tempo of her pseudo-bohemian lifestyle—works with her boyfriend to distribute bootleg DVD-Rs to customers across Buenos Aires. While effectively working as a pirate (shades, again, of Jacques Rivette circa Noroît), Viola divests herself into the painstaking handcrafting of her illicit care packages. She carefully hand-wraps the burned discs in brown paper, embossing them with a jagged capital “M” styled after the poster typography of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (“Metropolis” is also the name of her unlicensed content distribution startup), a way of essentially ripping off someone else’s work and then parceling it up as a gift. Ditto Viola itself, which takes material as broad and endlessly redone as Shakespearean drama and stamps it with Piñeiro’s authorial imprint, not so much restaging The Twelfth Night as transmuting it.