Tense moves, true grit
The Dark Horse (M) National release Rock the Casbah (M) National release
RECENT screen stories of beautiful minds struggling in the less than beautiful world include Russell Crowe’s mathematical genius in, well, A Beautiful Mind, a role for which he should have won an Oscar ( Training Day? Please!), and Geoffrey Rush’s portrayal of pianist David Helfgott in Shine, for which he did receive a golden statuette. New Zealand film
centred on a former chess prodigy plagued by the demons of mental illness, is an outstanding addition to the field.
Based on real events and directed by James Napier Robertson, the film is anchored by two exceptional performances: Cliff Curtis ( Once Were Warriors, Whale Rider) as one-time chess whiz Genesis Potini (who died in 2011) and James Rolleston as his 14-year-old nephew Mana. We last saw the super-talented Rolleston in the 2010 coming-of-age comedy-drama Boy, NZ’s highest grossing film to date.
The action opens with Gen, draped in a patchwork shawl, walking beatifically through traffic and the rain (except we learn it isn’t raining) and into an antique store, where he plays with an old chess set. A social worker arrives, then the police, and he is taken away.
When he is released, he is told he must take his medication and make sure he gets enough sleep. “Stability” is the mantra. Gen’s problem isn’t named — and this is an admirable strength of the film, that his mental illness is never more than a lurking, menacing background fact — but the real Gen suffered bipolar disorder.
Gen initially stays with his older brother, Mana’s father Ariki, a senior member of a Maori criminal gang (played by Wayne Hapi, who had not acted before and is a quiet revelation). It was Ariki who taught Gen how to play chess, when they were boys and the world still seemed open to them.
But when the gentle Gen seems to be having an influence on Mana, who his father wants initiated into the gang, he is told to leave. He finds his way to a chess club run for wayward kids, ends up becoming their coach and decides to take them to the junior championships in Auckland — a mission impossible at first glance.
The film now turns on two intertwined dramas: the chess tournament and the fate of Mana, who joins the chess club but only because his father doesn’t know. Meanwhile, his brutal, humiliating induction into gang life proceeds. Towering over all of this is Gen. I described him as gentle, but he is so in the same way as the Billy Bob Thornton character in the extraordinary Sling Blade: scary gentle.
Curtis commands our attention in every scene, not least because we are unsure of what he will do next. His barely suppressed mania at the chess tournament is a highlight. This is the performance of his career to date, one of exquisite control, all power and subtlety. He is matched by Rolleston, still only 18, who provokes and convinces us throughout.
Gen and Mana — and Ariki in his own way — are superb reminders that bravery is one of the rarest human qualities, and one rarely related to the circumference of the biceps.
It would be possible to see The Dark Horse as another film about the disillusionment, hopelessness and violence of contemporary urban Maori life, and certainly that is unvarnished here. But if you take a step back and consider what is up there on the screen, you will also see a Kiwi — and largely Maori — work of the highest artistic excellence. IF People magazine had been naming a sexiest man alive back in Omar Sharif’s heyday, there’s little doubt he would have graced the cover. The Egyptian actor had them swooning in the aisles in 1960s films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, in which he convincingly loved one of the all-time great beauties in Julie Christie. Fifty-plus years later, Sharif is reduced to playing a corpse. Such is the fate that awaits us all.
I’m joking, sort of. Sharif is a dead body in the real-time action of the likable and thought-provoking French-Moroccan film
he is Moulay Hassan, a Tangiers tycoon whose sudden death underpins the drama, set over the three days of his funeral.
However, the living, breathing, 82-year-old Sharif (still looking great) can not just lie there, so he pops up at various points in the film as a sort of magical realist narrator. We meet him right at the start, in fact, when he tells us, Mediterranean cool in white linen and espadrilles, that he has annoyingly croaked. This is soon confirmed by the presence of his cadaver, which has an stupendous erection that doubles the sense of inadequacy of his surviving and less successful brother: “He thrashed me at golf only yesterday.”
But this jovial introduction — complete with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope singing We’re Off on the Road to Morocco over the opening titles — belies the sly seriousness of this film, which is a lot of fun but also touches on the complexities of the Arab world and particularly the place of women in it.
Moulay’s death brings his large family to his mansion for the funeral. He has three gorgeous daughters all aged in their 30s and 40s: Miriam, an uptight teacher; Kenza, a dissatisfied, Heineken-guzzling corporate wife (her husband is CEO of dad’s firm); and Sofia, who has flown in from New York, where she works as an actress, playing sexy terrorists in action films. A fourth sister, Leyla, killed herself, and this death is the rippling tension through the gathering, presided over by Moulay’s widow Aicha.
There’s also a devoted housemaid, Yacouta, and her handsome son, Zakaria, who are at the heart of a troubling family secret. The result of this rich stew of characters is a slowly satisfying film — one that creeps up on you in having something important to say — that touches on questions of family, fidelity, fate, love, mortality and the place of women in the world, not just the Muslim one. This film continues to linger in my mind. See it at a morning session with a strong coffee. You won’t regret it.
James Rolleston and Cliff Curtis in New Zealand drama
above; Omar Sharif in