Brilliant political allegory from Argentina
Penumbra | Atlanta, GA USA | 06/28/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"In the capital of the fictional Miranda Republic, Arcibel Alegría (Darío Grandinetti) has a modest job writing a chess column and crossword puzzles for the local newspaper. As someone who was able to play the world chess champion to a tie in five games, chess is Arcibel's passion. He is writing coverage of an international game between players in Ciudad Miranda and Managua. However, his poetic description of the miracle it will take to save the black king smothered by pawns turns out to be a poor choice of words in a paranoid Latin American military dictatorship. Arcibel is suspected of being a revolutionary sympathizer and questioned by the police. His story about the chess game is not believed, and he becomes a political prisoner, jailed without a trial or even formal charges.
In prison he meet some real revolutionaries. Dr. Palacios (Juan Diego), an avowed socialist, takes Arcibel under his wing and teaches him how to survive and stay sane in jail. El Rengo (Juan Echanove), a former guerrilla, lives in hope that one day Che Guevara will bring the revolution to Miranda and free them all. Arcibel learns to pass the time doing his prison chores, playing chess with Dr. Palacios, and learning to practice Zen meditation from a book donated to the prison.
Many years pass before the prisoners learn that "democracy" has come to Miranda in the form of elections. True, the same General who has been their dictator wins the election by a landslide, but there are signs that things are beginning to crack. For one thing, political prisoners are being freed. That is, all except Arcibel. Since there charges were never brought against him, there is no record of him as a prisoner, and if there is no record there can be no pardon. So, he remains behind as the prison is transformed into a jail for common criminals.
With the release of the intellectuals and political prisoners, Arcibel finds himself with a new cell mate. Pablo (Diego Torres) is a kid from an impoverished background, an illiterate drug addict imprisoned for shooting a policeman during a robbery. Yet somehow these two bond. Arcibel teaches Pablo to read and write, even to meditate, but his efforts to teach the kid chess are hopeless.
To pass the time Arcibel is inspired to create a new game. He draws an outline of Miranda on the floor of their cell and, using bottle caps and buttons as game pieces, they devise a strategy game of army (Arcibel's team) against guerrillas (Pablo's team). Chess bored Pablo but the new game fascinates him. The two men pass their time playing for hours, day after day, year after year, for at least a decade - rules change, new strategies are tried. Finally, one day, Pablo is able to beat his teacher, win the game, and take control of Miranda. After that, there is nothing left for the young man to do except escape from prison.
The guards question Arcibel about his cell mate's escape, but he maintains he knows nothing. Then one day, army officers show up at the prison to question Arcibel. They aren't interested in details of Pablo's escape. They are demanding that Arcibel teach them how his game is played.
"Arcibel's Game" is a brilliant story, with an excellent script and an outstanding cast of actors from Argentina, Chile and Spain. Darío Grandinetti has a fine body of work, including Talk to Her (Hable con Ella) and El Lado Oscuro del Corazon [Import NTSC Region 0] Eliseo Subiela; he doesn't disappoint as Arcibel. On the other hand, Diego Torres' performance was completely unexpected. I had more or less written him off as a beefcake soap opera actor and a heartthrob singer, but he was outstanding as Pablo. It's very surprising that this film isn't better known.
In Spanish with English subtitles.
Highly recommended for those with the patience to let the story unfold."