In its intermittently interesting attempt to fuse the cerebral symbolism of chess with the psychodrama of a young woman’s search for her birth mother, “Check and Mate” emerges as a film you can admire more for its moves than for the final results. Helmer Claudia Florio, a Palm Springs fest favorite returning with her second pic (after “Deceit”) in two years, shifts into a much darker mood this time, though she never realizes the maximum dramatic potential of David Ambrose’s script. Arriving on Italian screens in March, pic will find moderate interest in Euro theatrical and ancillary markets, but is far too subdued for North American export.
A chess prodigy with little interest in life beyond the black-and-white board, Maria (Barbara Bobulova) describes herself as “almost 18,” and proceeds early on to not only defeat six opponents simultaneously, but, in a heavy-handed sequence, the slick-haired Italian champ.
She is troubled, however, by nightmares that involve water, and the film’s rain-drenched atmospherics and Luciano Tovoli’s textured lensing combine to create a portentous outward physical reality akin to Maria’s inward mental state.
Though her coach-mentor Sterlizia (Tony Bertorelli) is helpful to her, he appears suspicious from the start, and pesky journalist Emilio (Ettore Bassi) hangs around the chess contests not to profile Maria as he says, but to nail Sterlizia on charges of child abuse. Simultaneously, Maria discovers that she was adopted, catapulting her and the movie into a chesslike web of strategies to uncover the identity of her birth mother (Valeria D’Obici).
Maria’s character is a little too abstract in Bobulova’s performance. Thesp is best playing her character’s obsessive, competitive side, but the third act’s variegated psychological landscape seems too difficult for her to traverse.
Ultimately, the drama’s fascination remains more in the process of getting to the truth of Maria’s origins than the arrival, which is a predictable letdown.
Florio displays increasing control of mise en scene and of marrying ideas to visuals, marking her as an Italo director to track.
Tech support is solid, though Luis Bacalov’s score is much too insistent on telling us how to feel.