In a bold chess move that triumphs, director Grzegorz Krolikiewicz casts aging and crippled Bronek Pekosinski in his own biography. The Alzheimer-diagnosed Pole takes a dry-eyed journey through his life story in a search for his identity. Its semi-docu style and affecting subject matter grab the audience early on, and its unresolved ending will jab at puzzle solvers long beyond the closing credits. This second-place prize winner at Karlovy Vary could play out well with serious cinema-goers far beyond Poland’s borders.
Like a pawn in the game of chess that he once mastered, Bronek gazes with a bland smile as his handlers — guardians or Communist Party ruffians — and events determine his path. Now frail and decrepit, crippled by a stroke, he is often literally picked up and set in place. The framework for the film is a chess match during which Bronek tells what he remembers of his past to his opponent, who urges him to delve deeper. In flashbacks, and without any change of demeanor or clothing, Bronek replays his history.
It begins with his falling on a pile of potatoes, thrown over a concentration camp fence by his mother. Because he has no identity, the authorities invent a genealogy of sorts for him: his birth date the day Germany invaded Poland, his name derived from the acronym of the orphanage where he spends his childhood. The potato landing damages the child, his hunchback malformation adding to his misfortunes.
Though surrounded by a solid cast of actors, Bronek’s simplicity and honesty stand out. A glowing blank slate, a cipher patiently being buffeted by the winds of fate, in the end this ancient infant seems fazed by only one thing: the search for his mother’s, and therefore his own, identity. The brilliant choice to use Pekosinski as himself in every scene, from infancy through the chess-match narration, lends a universal resonance: The old man is present in the child; the child lives in the old man.
Bronek’s one interest in life is chess, which he masters. This provides keys for the director in unlocking Pekosinski himself and his past. One can’t help but care for this fragile man, but the unsentimental eye of the camera and the unromanticized visual style refuse to provide easy emotional outlets. They don’t have to. The image of Bronek Pekosinski’s hopeful face in a cynical world is haunting enough.