In Viola, the words of William Shakespeare are screwed and chopped into the dialogue so that it's difficult to tell when the original Twelfth Night ends and the small talk begins. It takes bravery to mess with the Bard, which is one reason why the movies of Matias Pineiro feel like just about the boldest things around right now.
The 32-year-old Argentine's work is gentle and friendly in a way that's out of step with the endurance-test filmmaking filling contemporary art houses, but it's also genuinely challenging. His sprightly little films move so swiftly between scenes and ideas that some viewers may get winded trying to keep up.
That sense of breathlessness is on full display in TIFF Bell Lightbox's new retrospective Divertimentos: The Films of Matias Pineiro, which includes all the feature films produced by its subject. Granted, there are only four of them so far, but it is to the Lightbox's credit that it is showcasing such a distinctive young auteur in a season otherwise devoted to past masters such as Jean-Luc Godard.
"It's obviously nothing compared with a retrospective on George Cukor or Bela Tarr," said Pineiro, an ardent cinephile who teaches film history at the Universidad del Cine in his native Buenos Aires. "I'm still working on my craft, and it's still just in progress. The gesture [by TIFF] is very nice, but it's more like they're checking in on me than suggesting anything is complete. It's nice that people are paying attention to what I'm doing."
What Pineiro is doing is quietly revolutionizing the idea of putting Shakespeare on film. His first two movies, The Stolen Man (2007) and They All Lie (2009), are both tricky ensemble pieces that introduced the director's interest in literary sources and fresh-faced young artist characters. But it was Rosalinda (2011) that announced the arrival of a major talent. Set against a lush Amazonian backdrop that evokes the enchanted forests of so many Shakespeare comedies, the short (43-minute) film is about a theatre troupe whose outdoor rehearsal of As You Like It starts to feel uncannily real.
"I don't like the idea of Shakespeare with a capital S," Pineiro explained in a telephone interview. "It's more about the writer whose work still speaks to me today. That's why I don't do full adaptations of his plays; I take the scenes and characters that connect, which have that feeling of closeness."
The delirious, mysterious atmosphere of Rosalinda carries over to Viola (2012), which concerns a group of actresses performing all-female interpretations of Shakespeare's works while playing out like one of the playwright's own farces, complete with hidden identities, elaborate schemes and dreamy interludes.
"I try to put my fingers in it and work around it," says Pineiro of Shakespeare's work. "But a lot of other filmmakers have done this as well – made movies structured somehow by Shakespeare, even if the influence is left unsaid. I see [the plays] as raw material, but not only raw: They're also very rich."
This notion of duality informs everything about Pineiro's movies, which are thrifty and meticulous, intellectual and sexy, spontaneous and refined. For all their fascination with classical drama, they're also deeply contemporary. In particular, Viola's tale of amateurs diligently honing their craft on the margins of a South American metropolis feels like a statement about the vitality of Buenos Aires' artistic community (and may also be a kind of self-portrait of the director).
"Viola was made in a delicate system," notes Pineiro, who says he is equally inspired by the women in his casts as by the plays of Shakespeare. "It's a system that I feel has to be protected. I can make movies in these small structures. We can try to get more money, but then maybe the growth would be disproportionate. If the movies get bigger, maybe I'm not made for it. The next film might be clumsy, like a little monster, it won't know what to do. So maybe I'm not interested in bigger structures."
Whether Pineiro will be able to keep things intimate as his profile grows in global film culture is an interesting question, but if he's stressed about it, it doesn't show onscreen. "When I show the films, I always say that there was a lot of joy in making them," he says. "They are not hard movies. There is mystery and there are gaps and shifts, and maybe the films really need the viewer to stay with them, but they're not laborious. I think of them as invitations to be with me, but not for too long. I know that time is very precious. So I will only keep you for a little while, and then I will let you leave."
Divertimentos: The Films of Matias Pineiro, runs to April 6 at TIFF Bell Lightbox