Tense moves, true grit

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FILM REVIEWS - Stephen Romei

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.

Dark Horse,

the Casbah

The

Rock

James Rolle­ston and Cliff Cur­tis in New Zealand drama

above; Omar Sharif in

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