El Juego de Arcibel / Arcibel’s Game (2003, Argentina)

Arcibel's Game - Dario Grandinetti as Arcibel Alegria (left) and Juan diego as Palacios (right), assist an distressed El Rengo (Juan Echanove) following Che Guevarra's death

In some ways this is the antithesis of an action movie; an accidental political prisoner becomes a celebrated revolutionary leader, also by accident, after he invents a board game in prison. If there is such a thing, it is quite possibly an inaction movie, and all the better for it.

Arcibel Alegría (Darío Grandinetti) is a reporter for a newspaper in the fictional Latin American country of Miranda. It is the mid-1960s. He is not a journalist of influence – he prepares the crossword, the horoscope, and a chess column. But one of his chess articles is given curious prominence in the paper, and is immediately seen by the authorities as a thinly-veiled, subversive attack on the country’s dictator. He is thrown in jail with political prisoners from every leftist denomination.

If his imprisonment is a cruel joke, his surname rubs it in: ‘alegría’ means ‘joy’ in Spanish. There is no trial and he is not charged. He learns the ropes from the prisoner in the next cell, Dr Palacios (Juan Diego), with whom he plays chess, tapping on their common wall, and ‘El Rengo’ (‘the Gimp’, Juan Echanove), a committed revolutionary whose leg got in the way of a bomb he’d set.

Arcibel is quickly resigned to his fate, and survives. Perhaps it seems to him that his life outside wasn’t much worth fighting for anyway. He finds a Zen text and learns to meditate through difficult times. The years go by: the Vietnam War, Che Guevara’s death in 1967 (which Rengo takes very badly)… and Palacios dies also, mid-chess game. After more than 15 years Arcibel receives his first visit – from his daughter, Rosalinda (Rebeca Cobos) – who had been told he was dead and had followed in his footsteps, also doing the crossword and horoscope at El Mundo, before discovering the truth. She vows to have him set free.

In 1983 the country makes a sudden shift towards democracy, and almost all of the political prisoners are pardoned and released. Rengo doggedly refuses to be released; it is too meek an end to his struggle to be released into a democratic state and he would prefer to wait for the revolution to liberate him. Arcibel’s name is not even on the list; he believes that to acknowledge his status as a political prisoner would be to concede that there was a mistake all that time ago. “Looks like chess players continue to be dangerous,” he says. He continues to meditate.

With so few political prisoners the prison starts to be filled with common criminals. Pablo (Diego Torres), a drug addict who killed a policemen in a shootout, is brought in to share Arcibel’s cell in a new bunk bed. He is all brashness to Arcibel’s calm. Arcibel teaches him to read, and tries to teach him to be serene. It is out of frustration at Pablo’s inability to understand the subtleties of chess that Arcibel develops a new game which he hopes will resonate better in the modern world – a game of war and strategy, like chess, but with more apprehensible protagonists – guerrillas and the General’s forces, fighting for cities and territory in Miranda, instead of rooks and pawns seeking to occupy squares on the chess board.

Pablo learns well, and when he escapes from prison – borrowing from the game’s emphasis on thinking outside the box – he starts to put the game’s warfare strategy into place – with the assistance of Rosalinda. By this stage Arcibel is a tired old man, but as the government’s hold on power weakens and all the old structures – including the prison – are broken down, he is hailed as the true architect of the revolution.

It is a film full of gentle satire and wry humour. “Is the opposition growing? Things are moving on?” asks Palacios when Arcibel arrives in custody. “I don’t know. I’m a journalist,” replies Arcibel. The prisoners in the laundry run a book on an ingenious roulette game which relies upon where the washing machine finishes its cycle.

And few prison films show the effects of institutionalisation as well as this. Palacios warns Arcibel at the outset that “after a few days of apparent apathy you’ll go on to pure rage and then to deep depression.” Aside from their lack of productivity, the film shows the men, as the years pass, as increasingly out-of-touch (speculating that the fall of Berlin Wall might signal victory for the Communists), and more and more doubtful of their own capacity to live in the world outside – to such an extent that Rengo refuses to leave when pardoned and Arcibel confesses to Rosalinda that, after decades inside, his time to be free might well have passed. The old guards who were once officious and caustic become familiar, almost family-like.

The political activists, the ‘men of action’ who once wanted to grab the world by the throat and shake it, are now afraid of it. But one is the hero of the revolution.

Arcibel's Game #2 - Rebeca Cobos as Rosalinda Arcibel's Game #3 - Diego Torres as Pablo

Posted on November 2nd, 2012 at 9:20 pm. Updated on January 1st, 2017 at 9:04 am.

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