Argentina: Latin America's Berlinale standard-bearer

Buenos Aires - Rompecabezas (Jigsaw Puzzle) might be Argentinian director Natalia Smirnoff's debut feature film but it brings together 12 years of work in her country's movie industry. The film - about self-discovery and on how people handle crucial moments in life - has been selected for the race for Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

The low-budget Rompecabezas' inclusion in the main competition for one of the world's top film festivals also crowns five years of character-based work. But Smirnoff, 37, is modest about her experience.
"I want people to like it," she told the German Press Agency dpa.

"I want the film to be as universal as possible."
Not in a commercial sense, she said but so that the hard work of the people involved in the movie can reap the biggest possible rewards. And the film does indeed touch upon universal themes, Smirnoff said.

It tells the story of a housewife (played by Argentinian actress Maria Onetto) suffering from like empty-nest syndrome - the loneliness and even a crisis of confidence that often engulfs people after their children have left home.

Onetto's character receives a jigsaw puzzle as a 50-year-old-birthday present. She finds a new meaning for her life when she starts taking part in jigsaw-puzzle competitions.
Motherhood and the fear to move on at watershed moments in life play a central role in Rompecabezas.

"The film tells of someone who discovers something new about herself, and then a whole universe is launched that is small but nevertheless is a new universe within her life," the director said.
Smirnoff realized in the process that she was going through a similar process at the personal level: becoming a director, going to prestigious film festivals, and so on.

She is both the director and the scriptwriter for Rompecabezas. During her career, she has worked as an assistant director and a casting director alongside acclaimed directors such as Lucrecia Martel and Pablo Trapero. Indeed, she was assistant and casting director for Martel's La Cienaga, which competed for the Golden Bear in 2001, and La Nina Santa, which competed for Cannes' Palme d'Or in 2004.

Her work in Rompecabezas, Smirnoff said focused on getting "very, very deep into detail" in the approach to characters.
"It is those details that make a difference when it comes to seeing something," she stressed. "Observing was always something of a passion for me."Before being actively involved in the film industry, Smirnoff worked as a reporter and believes the experience as another valuable input in the art of "looking profoundly" at a character as a scriptwriter.

As a director, she just went along with the story, as someone who "knows the same as the character but even a little less."
A mother of two, Smirnoff mentions the groundbreaking experience of seeing her 7-year-old son take photographs that bore his own imprint: his own look on the world.

So far, Smirnoff's experience in film festivals has been good, since Rompecabezas won an award at the Films in Progress section at San Sebastian and walked away from the northern Spanish city's movie festival with an international agent for her film. She laughs and notes that San Sebastian was quite an experience, and makes it a little bit less daunting to tackle Berlin.

"It meant discovering a whole universe," she says more seriously. "It's like learning to move about in a different place."
Confidence and pride in her work, however, makes Smirnoff eager and optimistic about taking her film to the German capital.

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