A woman who obsessively pieces together jigsaw puzzles might not seem like the most promising subject for a movie. (A sleep aid, yes.) And yet "Puzzle," from first-time Argentine writer-director Natalia Smirnoff, has its low-key charms. It's the kind of movie that creeps up on you, and this is due almost entirely to its lead actress, María Onetto, who looks as though she actually could solve one of those 8,000-piece puzzles.
María del Carmen (Onetto) is living out a dullish life as a housewife-drudge. When we first see her, at an extended family dinner gathering, she's so busy scurrying back and forth from the kitchen that I mistook her for a maid. (My confusion was, I think, intentionally elicited.) María finally emerges from the kitchen with a 50th birthday cake and, surprise, it's for her.
Her husband Juan (Gabriel Goity) is kindly but gruff. He's very happy in his life to be waited on and doesn't really pay too much attention to María's emotional temperature. She also has two rambunctious, live-at-home sons, one of whom is seriously dating a vegetarian and wants to go with her to India.
María's newfound expertise at jigsaw puzzles leads her to a wealthy bachelor, Roberto (Arturo Goetz), who is looking for a tournament partner. Without letting on to her family what she is up to, María meets twice a week with Roberto in his lavish home and together they practice their abundant skills in preparation for a local tournament.
It's inevitable that Roberto should warm to María, who on the surface is rather remote and starchy. She is also attractive and without guile. Her skills, and her unorthodox way of solving the puzzles, give her a satisfaction missing from the rest of her not altogether unhappy life. But Onetto doesn't overdo the joyousness. She doesn't overdo anything, and this might seem like too inward an approach to character. It is only later on, when she loosens up a bit and allows her successes to sink in, that María seems womanly in a way that makes us realize she was like that all along.
"Puzzle" could use a few more pieces – it's more of a sketch for a movie than a fully worked out narrative. Smirnoff relies somewhat too heavily on Onetto's demure charisma. But there are wonderful nuances all the way through. It's both funny and touching that one of María's favorite puzzles is an enigmatic portrait of Nefertiti. With her own enigmatic allure, María is the queen of puzzlers. Grade: B+ (Unrated. In Spanish, with subtitles.)