The 2009 Argentinian film, “Rompecabezas” (“The Puzzle”) by Natalia Smirnoff, has been rewritten by Polly Mann and Oren Moverman (“Norman”) to create a sublimely authentic American adaptation portraying a woman’s need for self-worth and identity while accentuating the influence of religion, specifically during the season of Lent. All of this is created by Agnes’ (Kelly Macdonald) newfound skill of puzzling. Who would have thought that a skill, thought to be more of a solitary endeavor, would lead to so much interaction and discovery!
Agnes is an introverted, unfulfilled, and sheltered wife and mother of two older boys. Her mundane and subservient life is turned upside down when she discovers a new outlet: competitive puzzling. As the family and her community prepare for the upcoming Catholic High Holiday of Easter, we see Agnes’ life unfolding to encompass many aspects of the Easter story including suffering, denial, betrayal, and a rebirth. “Puzzle” is an eloquently evocative film addressing current attitudes still ingrained in our society regarding women’s roles while utilizing the undercurrent of religion and a game.
In many ways, the concept of a woman’s role hasn’t changed in centuries. Women are still expected to be the nurturers, the caregivers, and the caretakers, ultimately putting their own needs not only on hold, but sometimes buried for good. We get a sense of this situation with Agnes in the opening scene as she scurries around during a birthday party, making sure everything is in order, waiting on everyone and ensuring their happiness. Moments later we surprisingly and sadly realize it is her birthday celebration. We later learn that she has sacrificed her own dreams and education in order to raise her children, one of whom belittles her with his words while watching his father do the same with his actions.
Agnes receives a jigsaw puzzle as one of her birthday gifts and sits down to easily put it together. Enjoying this different type of concentration, distracting her from her other responsibilities, Agnes ventures into New York City to purchase another one. Catching her eye in the store is an ad for a puzzle partner. Excitedly yet timidly, Agnes contacts Robert (Irrfan Kahn), a wealthy bachelor with whom she develops more than a friendship. Through Robert, Agnes’ eyes are opened to a whole new world filled with information and emotions to which she had previously been oblivious. In essence, this is the beginning of Agnes’ “transformative” experience.
Throughout the entire film, Agnes’ deep sense of commitment to religion is obvious, but it is religion and the celebration of Easter that truly drives the story forward, drawing parallel lines between this ancient story and Agnes’. The symbolism in the film punctuates the emotional tone as Agnes begins to discover herself. Early in the film, we see the daytime moon, a mythical reference that a storm is coming, but in religion, it is seen as the second and inferior luminary created by God. Both interpretations seem correct as the moon is prevalent in many of the scenes, Agnes always gazing upward toward it. She recognizes that she too is secondary in her family’s lives and feels inferior, but that “storm” that lies ahead will change her forever.
The polar opposites of light and dark are also vividly captured in “Puzzle” from the opening scene to the final one. Closed in, dark shots reflect Agnes’ life in the beginning, but as she opens up and explores her world and her own feelings, there is a brightness shined upon her. The open and bright surroundings are a direct reflection of who she is becoming, just as the season of Lent comes to a close with Jesus’ coming into the light and being resurrected. Agnes begins to stand up for herself, voice an opinion, and be more independent. This new attitude is shocking to her friends and family, but there is an inner lightness that is now evident in her.
Discussion and open ignorance about other religions create another interest in Agnes’ world. Buddhism and the concept of happiness strike a chord in her that will create a symphony of emotions later on. As Agnes ventures out into the world of puzzles with Robert, sneaking away from her family and her expected daily tasks, she begins to lie. While the guilt is evident, particularly when the Parish Father asks if she needs to have confession, she can’t begin to confront her own actions. Meanwhile, her son Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) confesses his innermost fears and frustrations, looking to her for support and guidance. During several key scenes, Ave Maria is heard, accentuating the pushing and pulling toward and away from God and home. She has been blessed, with her sons, but will she renounce that in order to hear her own voice set to her own beat?
While Agnes may be more aptly compared to Peter of the disciples as she turns her back on her religion and her Catholic roots, betraying her husband as she falls into Robert’s arms, the burden of lying has become too much.
This is the darkest point in Agnes’ life, coinciding with Easter Sunday. The slow emotional death she was experiencing found a new spark of life and now, as the tomb is opened and Christ is risen, Agnes determines if she is reborn as well.
Kelly Macdonald demonstrates her versatility as an actress as she eloquently and subtly performs as Agnes. Her understated skills give Agnes the depth and believability that create a woman many of us understand if not even identify with. Macdonald’s relationships with her husband, Robert, and her sons create such authenticity that the dialogue becomes even more powerful, pushing you to tears particularly during the scene with she and Ziggy.
Relationships identify Agnes and it is these relationships that shine a light on the strength of all the cast. David Denman’s performance as Agnes’ husband brings a familiar strength to the screen, representing many marriages and father figures. Austin Abrams typifies so many teens and creates another realistic character in his youthful yet skillful way as Gabe, but it is Weiler’s performance as Ziggy that stays with you, long after the final credits roll. And Kahn is simply extraordinary as Robert finding absolute harmony with Macdonald in this film. The deft direction, exceptional writing, and extraordinary cast make “Puzzle” a film that will stand the test of time and will certainly speak to many of us, perhaps pushing us to find our own inner voices.
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