'Isabella' Review: The Women Take The Stage In A Surreal Shakespeare Riff [NYFF]

All the world's a stage, but many of its players are riddled with self-doubt in Matías Piñeiro's surreal exploration of female identity through the works of William Shakespeare. Isabella is the Argentinian director's latest post-modern spin on Shakespeare, following two women who are imperfect reflections of each other as they audition for the part of Isabella in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.

Measure for Measure is often called one of Shakespeare's problem plays due to its unclassifiable nature — like many of Shakespeare's comedies there's plenty of mistaken identity and lacks the doomed fate of many of his tragic heroes, but its dark tone often confuses this classification. Similarly, the abstract nature of Isabella, with its non-linear narrative and blurring between reality and fiction, often offers up too confusing a jigsaw puzzle to solve.

Our central character is Mariel (longtime Piñeiro muse María Villar), an aspiring actress who hopes to play the role of Isabella in a local production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. But money problems keep distracting her from the audition, and she turns to her estranged brother for help. To reach out to him, Mariel intercepts his lover, Luciana (a beguiling Agustina Muñoz), a fellow actress who it turns out is auditioning for the same role. The two of them strike up an unusual friendship, bonding over Mariel's brother and rehearsing for the audition together, in an uneasy rivalry that strengthens as the pair continue to cross paths — first during the odd audition process, which would bring the actresses into an empty room to perform their lines with an unseen man through a one-way mirror, then in random encounters over the next few years as Luciana's career takes off and Mariel's stagnates.

Isabella loves the idea of mirroring: the film opens with a shot of the sky and water converging at dusk, awash in a purple light that bathes the lone figure standing at a dock. "The color purple. It's both a heated red and a tinted blue. Fragility and strength at the same time... an opportunity for making decisions. The color of equilibrium," a woman narrates for what turns out to be an art exhibit. It's never clear what the art exhibit is exactly about, but it seems to hint at the hidden women's world — boxes within boxes that contain nothing, rocks painted all one color with just one in a splash of red. That imagery pops up throughout the film as Mariel and Luciana hand each other rocks (recalling the painted rocks of the art exhibit in a handy smash cut) as part of an acting exercise: each time they pass the rock, they suggest a new emotion with which the other reads the line, resulting in a rapidly shifting reading of a Shakespeare passage. It's a disconcerting experience that lends to the overall fractured feeling of the film, which only offers bits and pieces of Mariel and Luciana's lives, but embeds us in Mariel's gnawing self-doubt whenever she encounters her more successful doppelganger.Isabella is intentionally fragmented — a jigsaw puzzle that never feels complete, a daydream too bright and tactile to feel dreamlike. Mariel appears to be pregnant, then not pregnant, and then shepherding around a little toddler, at various intervals throughout the film, and during her rehearsal of her audition monologue, refers to a meeting that had not happened yet or maybe only happened as it did in her mind. The pieces of Mariel's life feel alternately predestined and random, dreadful and joyous — but that, perhaps, is what female subjectivity is, Piñeiro seems to suggest. It's all based on what you can interpret from it, I guess. But like Isabella, one of the most divisive characters in Shakespeare lore for the polarizing interpretations of her (is she a pure and saintly figure in her strict morality, or terribly heartless?) the film Isabella is one that lines the pieces up for you — mismatched and all — and leaves you to decide whether it's all rife with meaning or too obscure to parse. I, unfortunately, fall in the latter./Film Rating: 6 out of 10