Arcibel's Game review

:. Director: Alberto Lecchi
:. Starring: DarĂ­o Grandinetti, Diego Torres
:. Running Time: 1:55
:. Year: 2003
:. Country: Argentina


With El Juego de Arcibel, Argentine director Alberto Lecchi has crafted a compelling allegory of revolution and the Latin American left. He also explores the brutality of right wing dictatorships and the sardonic humor those suffering under them employ to survive.

In the fictional Latin American country of Miranda, Arcibel Alegria (Dario Grandinetti), a chess columnist for a newspaper, spends decades in prison after one of his columns is seen as a subversive attack on the government. After his comrades in prison die off or are freed, he finds himself sharing a cell with a younger inmate, Pablo (Diego Torres). He invents a new game of war and strategy, planting the seeds of revolution in his pupil. After Diego escapes, a revolution is born throughout the country using Arcibel's strategy.

Particularly interesting about the film is how political prisoners survive when stripped of all rights. The process is shown as first of indifference, followed by disbelief and despair, and then followed by resignation. For many years Arcibel creates a semblance of a life when he finds a fellow chess player in the cell next door to his. They play chess with series of knocks on the wall and a matchbox fashioned as a chessboard. He is permitted for a time to read the paper until that too is decreed verboten. Regardless, with time he creates his own life.

The use of black humor is crucial to the film's success. What could be a three-hour liturgy on the Latin American left is infused with the energy laughter provides under the worst possible circumstances. He is given a book on meditation, but with pages torn out he meditates in his own dignified manner, aware that he has not been given a full explanation and still being able to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Arcibel's best friend in prison, an old school socialist, dreams of a Soviet world and is crushed when Che Guevara is killed, for he hoped that one day Che would come to the prison to liberate them and fulfill their proletarian dream. They learn that the Berlin Wall has fallen, and briefly hope that the Soviets won. When the dictatorship decides to free his friend, he refuses to leave and promptly punches a guard, not wanting to give them the satisfaction of controlling him. "Democracy" means a new wave of common criminals invades the prison after "elections", and the old school is disgusted by their lack of knowledge and manners. In one heartbreaking scene Arcibel is told he has a visitor (his wife left him before he was imprisoned and told their daughter he was dead) and goes to the meeting area, wondering who it could be. It turns out that a fellow prisoner, who is black, has the same last name. The visitor is not there to see him.

Arcibel's game, invented to pass the time and to teach a smart but uneducated prisoner about strategy, also serves as a way to mentor someone younger, in this way he is able to raise him the way he was not able to raise his daughter. She arrives one day to see him after learning that he was imprisoned and not killed in a plane crash. A new spirit permeates Grandinetti's character as he finds her just as tenacious as he had hoped. While she tries to get him freed, after so many years inside the world outside does not look as enticing. One aspect of the plot is overly melodramatic: the love affair that blossoms between his daughter and Pablo. It's a bit too easy and not really necessary.

In the end though, the revolution that Arcibel's game foments is a parable of hope for a continent whose population still lives under dire conditions. It's a checkmate for those who think they can get away with anything.

  Anji Milanovic

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