Among the many, many reasons I’m a huge Shakespeare nerd is that I love the way he subverts gender conventions. His plays are well aware of the limitations imposed upon women in his society, yet, writing for one of the most powerful female monarchs in history, he subverts these expectations. While it’s too simplistic to say his plays are empowering for women, some of them certainly play with the fluidity of gender roles, and particularly in his comedies, explore the freedom of disguise.
One of my favourite Shakespeare comedies precisely because of this play on gender roles is Twelfth Night. A pair of twins (one male, one female) are shipwrecked and separated on an island and somehow end up in an absolutely ridiculous love quadrangle, which is complicated by the fact that one of the twins, Viola, is in disguise as a man. How much of gender is determined by external signifiers such as clothing? How topsy turvy will the world really turn if we reject social conventions on these signifiers? The play itself is hilarious farce, lighthearted entertainment, yet a closer read reveals multiple points of potential discussion.
It comes as no surprise therefore that Shakespeare’s work can be interpreted time and again, and still appear fresh each time. For Argentinean filmmaker Matias Piñeiro, Shakespeare is not so much a basis of his works, as a springboard from which his films can take off and create something wholly new. This weekend, TIFF Cinematheque presents a retrospective of Piñeiro’s work, introducing Toronto audiences to his films as well as featuring Piñeiro’s Carte Blanche selection, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution (1964), which is loosely based on Stendahl’s 1838 novel The Charterhouse of Parma.
On Sunday, April 6 at 5:30 pm, TIFF Cinematheque presents PIñeiro’s Viola, the director’s riff on Twelfth Night and named after the heroine of Shakespeare’s play. Far from a direct presentation of the Bard’s work, however, the filmmaker creates a completely separate experience. Brad Deane, programmer of the PIñeiro retrospective, states that “while Piñeiro’s films are immensely pleasurable experiences, they can also be difficult to define,” and that is certainly my experience with Viola and its accompanying piece Rosalinda (inspired by Shakespeare’s As You Like It). Both films feature actors as actors reciting Shakespeare lines. Ostensibly rehearsing for a production, their repetition of particular phrases and scenes propel the plot forward, and advance the story of these actors as characters. This play within the play motif is a clear nod to Shakespeare, who used it in such a range of plays as Hamlet and Midsummer Night’s Dream, often using the multiple layers of disguise (actors on stage disguised as characters who are actors disguised as other characters) to reveal some truth.
The actual Shakespearean source narrative is not present in any coherent, recognizable form – Piñeiro’s films are indeed best described as “riffs” on Shakespeare rather than interpretations thereof. Shakespearean influence threads through the work, and possibly to a much more impressive degree than I was able to catch myself. Similar to Shakespearean comedies, Piñeiro’s films are rife with romantic entanglements — couples breaking up, getting back together, simmering with repressed passion — all expressed obliquely, at times only through a certain look between two characters as they recite lines from a Shakespeare play.
Rosalinda, the work that began Piñeiro’s fascination with Shakespeare is a short film that TIFF Cinematheque will air immediately before Viola. Featuring a group of actors rehearsing As You Like It in a country house, this feels like a director playing with form and testing the waters somewhat. It’s a vignette of a film, and not a bad one, though the film is so self-consciously obvious in its play with form that the characters don’t really emerge fully as individuals and their story beyond the play never really takes root.
In contrast, Viola feels like a much more confident, much tighter film. The film follows an all female ensemble that mashes up Shakespeare plays to create a completely new plot, and a bike courier who delivers her boyfriend’s pirated DVDs and who eventually crosses paths with the actors. Here is Piñeiro letting loose with his riff on Shakespeare, and it’s a stronger, more compelling film as a result. I love the idea of an all female cast, which completely overturns the all male cast Shakespeare had to work with. Just as Shakespeare used the cross-dressing aspect of male actors playing female parts to explore nuances of disguise and gender roles, Piñeiro presents his own interpretation of this, with female actors taking on the male roles.
I also love that the Shakespearean lines were mashed up from a variety of sources, and Piñeiro takes this a step further in the repetition of rehearsed scenes, where sections of dialogue are alternately selected and repeated, then lines are dropped and other sections of dialogue begin at various points. Each repetition sounds new, and even though we can recognize certain phrases as having been said before, there are varying levels of urgency and emotion in the delivery, such that it seems to mean something different each time.
In one particularly compelling scene, a pair of actresses are rehearsing a scene where one (playing a man’s role) conveys a message of love to the other on behalf of another man, yet soon finds himself captivated by the woman’s beauty. In this particular iteration of the scene, the actress playing the woman’s role is awaiting a call from her boyfriend, about whom she isn’t completely sure. As the actresses rehearse the same scene over and over, the sexual tension between them intensifies, such that it soon becomes unclear how much of the attraction between them is part of the rehearsal, and how much of it is real. Just as in Shakespeare, the line between disguise and reality is blurred.
Divertimentos: The Films of Matias Piñeiro will be at TIFF Bell Lightbox March 3 – 6, and the filmmaker will be present at all the screenings. Along with Viola and Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution, TIFF Cinematheque will also present Piñeiro’s films The Stolen Man and They All Lie, which are derived from writings by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, a nineteenth-century intellectual, activist and former president of Argentina. The full schedule for the weekend is available on the TIFF website.
Trailer for Viola: