As clever as a chessmaster’s gambit, “Arcibel’s Game” turns the brutal realities of 20th century Latin American politics into a metaphorical fable with lasting resonance. Argentine director Alberto Lecchi and co-writer Daniel Garcia Molt hatch a puzzle piece in which a newspaper chess columnist and horoscope writer is mistakenly imprisoned for life, but who invents games while behind bars that end up forging a revolution. With a mythical setting and universal themes, plus astute casting and a superior sense of audience engagement, pic’s commercial prospects (after local May release) should be bright, despite pic’s perplexing absence from the fall fest scene.
An irresistible yarn, “Arcibel” reinforces another dimension in the multi-varied Argentine cinema scene, which runs from the intensely personal and experimental (“The Blondes”) and auteurist (“Minimal Stories”) to brain-tickling entertainment such as this and pics like “Nine Queens.” In possibly the best role of his terrific career — and even surpassing his galvanizing turn in “Talk to Her” — Dario Grandinetti in the title role is at turns droll, ingenious, Kafkaesque and tragic.
Divorced yet content with his love of chess and newspaper work, Arcibel Alegria is the prototypical good citizen of the Latin American island nation of Miranda. He seems dogged by misfortune, though: He’s thwarted by his ex- from seeing young daughter Rosalinda, and a terrible flub in the paper’s layout has the headline for one of his chess columns hint darkly at the island’s dictator’s demise.
Although some unnecessary flashforwards to a much older Arcibel in what looks like prison give a bit too much away too early on, the scenario retains unpredictable elements. The innocent editorial mistake lands Arcibel in prison alongside hardcore political enemies of the state, all varying shades of socialist-Marxist. Having no immediately family and receiving no help from his employer, Arcibel finds himself in a perfectly absurd situation, with no way out.
Grandinetti is a master of playing a contemporary man whose ordinary life is disrupted by surrealistic elements. His Arcibel maintains an unnerving yet powerful state of calm in the face of flagrant injustice. It’s as if his socialist cell neighbor and chess partner Palacios (Juan Diego) and more fiery Marxist friend Rengo (Juan Echanove) absorb whatever anger stoic Arcibel may be feeling.
Arcibel wants only to live out his time playing on the tiny chessboard that Palacios gives him — and devising games out of everything, including the spinning machine that does the inmates’ laundry.
When Arcibel’s grown daughter appears and attempts to get him released, she discovers the island’s bureaucracy has no record of his existence, and hence he cannot be freed.
After Miranda becomes a democracy, the political prisoners are released. Palacios dies just before his release, and Rengo’s resistant behavior gets him tossed back in the clink, which is now filled — in one of the movie’s best jokes — with common crooks.
Bored without his old chess buddy, Arcibel makes do with his rather dumb cellmate Pablo (Diego Torres). He devises a new game a la “Risk” which uses a map of Miranda as the game board.
Like a master who has no idea what kind of pupil he’s unleashed on the world, Arcibel finds out after Pablo’s release that he’s taken the game’s tactics literally, and is now waging war on the government — in the name of Arcibel himself. Somehow, a movie that’s started out as a mild sort of “Front Page” comedy and morphed into a Beckett-like nightmare ends up in Preston Sturges territory, starring a conquering hero who had no idea he was conquering anything.
Grandinetti rules the film from start to finish, aging bit by bit into a Methuselah-like ancient, but his support keeps up the energy and wit, including fine turns from Echanove, Diego, Torres, Cobos and Vladimir Cruz as a prison guard who grows to admire Arcibel.
Lecchi’s handling of the story and filmic elements are several scales stronger than such previous frolics as “Nuts for Love,” particularly the way he manages to make Arcibel’s prison a world unto itself, with a steady pacing that powers the sense of decades passing by. Argentine and Chilean locales are non-specific enough to create a Miranda that feels awfully real.