Many beautiful things have screened over the years at the Toronto International Film Festival, and many of the works I’ve enjoyed most didn’t involve famous people or the related screaming-fan hype. Good storytelling still matters a lot in my world. This year, I made a conscious effort to attend the kind of fascinating movies that made me love TIFF in the first place.
I’d heard very good things about The Dark Horse from its premiere at the New Zealand International Film Festival back in July. The subject matter intrigued because it hit on my interest (if not talent) in chess. I grew up with a chess-mad friend and knew the names of many greats, including Kiwi champ Genesis Potini, the so-called “dark horse” of the New Zealand chess world. Now I don’t played chess myself, but I appreciate the elegance of the game and the depth of passion that comes with it, to say nothing of its many committed players. The Dark Horse, based on a 2005 documentary about Potini, chronicles his efforts in founding the Gisborne-based Eastern Knights chess club as he simultaneously attempts to deal with his mental illness and help his nephew escape a nightmarish home life.
Rather than The Dark Horse being a trite, cutesy melodrama about mental illness, it offers a refreshing, unflinching look at a complex man, his realities, and the community he inspired. The film opens with Genesis (played with magical intensity by Cliff Curtis) walking through a downpour, amidst busy traffic, a colorful quilt draped over his shoulders, speaking a mix of Maori and English, manically repeating words and phrases. In real life, Potini worked hard to make peace with his illness while working to give disadvantaged youth a sense of hope, despite incredible odds at both macro and micro levels. These mix of challenges are reflected in simple, effective ways throughout the film (the anxious pill-taking, the terrifying nosebleed, his sleeping rough in a rainstorm) though perhaps nowhere more strongly than in the scenes between Genesis (“Gen”) and his troubled brother, Ariki (Wayne Hapi, in a heartbreaking performance). His house is a party headquarters for thuggish fellow gang members, not a proper environment in which to raise his sensitive teenaged son, Mana (played with searing vulnerability by James Rolleston). When Ariki angrily shouts at Gen that “The world doesn’t want him!” (about Mana), we suspect he could be speaking about any number of the kids we’ve seen Gen work with. There’s an ugly if necessary subtext here, one that gives important pause.
However, far from giving in to despair, we see how the kids are able to flower, with diligence, discipline, patience, and kindness. Gen cultivates a deep sense of pride in their culture while fostering a true sense of self-worth and innate purpose. The scenes of the kids picking various chess pieces that represent who they are, and relating that to Maori mythology, is positively lyrical, but done in the most simple and elegant of ways. There is no soaring orchestral score, there are no cutesy quirks from any of the kids. Playing chess is not mere strategy on the board but necessary methodology in life; are you a Queen, a King, a pawn, a rook? The Dark Horse asks us to consider these questions not only of ourselves, but about those whom we might not think twice about, those whom we might write off, point fingers at, ostracize, ignore. Is there possibility? Can we guide them to “the center” as Gen is always urging his students to do on the board? Is there a better way to checkmate? The game’s mix of methodical and precise, of individual and community, is nicely realized onscreen, with scenes that alternate between Gen’s gentle engagements with the community, his difficult dealings with family, and his passionate, frequently tormented solo endeavors.
Director James Napier Robertson has done a masterful job in painting a mesmerizing portrait of a talented, troubled man who wanted to make a difference in the lives of those around him. He wisely lingers on faces and uses many long shots, silently observing the world of gangs, violence, and abuse without judgment or patronage. The audience is watching pure being unfold, whether it’s Genesis contemplating his next move (in life and/or on the board), a good friend expressing silent worry, a father letting go of the son he knows he can’t take care of, a teenager too scared to go home. Curtis is particularly moving in expressing the challenges Genesis faces in attempting to ride the waves of his mental state while processing the desperation around him. This is an Oscar-worthy performance, one that mixes pathos, anger, fear, pain, and a deep, extraordinary beauty. There’s something very soulful about the way Curtis uses his eyes, capturing with riveting stillness a touching vulnerability and intense knowingness, all at once.
Knowing the events and people in the movie are real imbues The Dark Horse with an automatic sense of humanity, but Robertson smartly avoids any kind of Hollywood-hokey tone. His smart, sensitive script, creative cinematography (with liberal use of documentary-style hand-held filming), and clearly trusting relationship with his actors touches at the heart of something beautiful but rare in film these days: grace. It’s a feeling I couldn’t help but experience as I looked out at the movie’s cast and crew Saturday afternoon. As was expressed, making a film is an act of faith, just as seeing one is; the glory and the genius of The Dark Horse is how much that faith is so beautifully expressed, and so authentically rewarded. We come away blessed, strategizing next moves, entirely in the presence of the divine. To quote the film’s tagline, bravery is contagious — but indeed, it turns out, so is grace. Burn down the school!