In the opening scene of Puzzle, Maria, the perfectly-cast Maria Onetto, a middle-aged housewife, kneads bread, prepares lunch, and decorates a birthday cake. Her own birthday cake.
During her own birthday party she waits on her family and friends, without a break, while her husband and sons relax, setting the tone for the entire movie.
The one bright spot in Maria’s dreary desperate housewife existence is her love of jigsaw puzzles, demonstrated aptly by a gleam in Onetto’s eyes as she pieces them together.
The new world of puzzle competitions (a world that I never knew existed!) is opened up to her by the wealthy Roberto, her puzzle partner she finds via an ad at a local puzzle store. Maria’s relationship with Roberto is complicated. He is alternately another man (like her husband and sons) telling her what to do (the best way to complete puzzles) and loaning her books to read.
At first Maria hides her sessions with Roberto from her family as they practice for the national competition, eventually hoping to compete in the worldwide championship. To me it was almost sad to see how pleased Maria is when Roberto praises her puzzle-making skills, when she is so unappreciated by her own family.
Though Maria does find the courage to reveal her new pastime, and shows her family how important it is to her, they are only vaguely and gradually supportive of her. The family acts patronizing, like oh, isn’t it cute that mom has a new hobby, and begrudge her the time the puzzles take away from them, like when she misses seeing an apartment wither her son in order to practice her puzzle skills. Her husband Juan is only grudgingly supportive of her (though their two sons make an effort to show interest) and at one point asks what the point of putting together puzzles is.
Maria’s family, though they take her for granted, are loving, with moments of gentle teasing that provide some humorous moments in the film. Laughs can also be found in the vegetarian girlfriend of Maria’s son, who comments that you wouldn’t want to eat a corpse, in reference to eating beef from a cow.
One of the best parts of the movie, in my opinion, is Onetto’s performance. She portrays Maria in a subtle way that reminded me of Meryl Streep, and conveys both boredom and frustration with her life, the simple pleasure in putting puzzles together, and the strength it takes for Maria to share her puzzle-making with her family, just by the expressions on her face. Onetto’s performance, together with the costuming and setting, work together seamlessly to create a vivid picture of hope in a dreary suburban existence, and of a woman finding the courage to declare independence from the roles society and family expect her to play.