The last of the movies I saw at Filmex (no cheers of relief, please) won this year's Acadamy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, but I could have found more deserving candidates among the films I saw at this festival, and Filmex didn't draw that impressive a field of foreign films this year. Dangerous Moves was a surprise winner; Beyond the Walls and A Wartime Romance were greater favorites. Beyond the Walls possibly succumbed to controversy concerning its portrayal of Israeli treatment of Arabs, and the Soviet Wartime Romance may have lost votes due to the relatively anti-Soviet climate of America. Despite the fact that, unlike most categories, Acadamy voters are required to see all nominated foreign films, I don't believe that Dangerous Moves was even the best of the nominated films.
Dangerous Moves isn't a bad film, but it isn't anything special. It is a fictitious portrayal of a world chess championship rather like the Karpov-Korchnoi match, and it tells its story in a straightforward, uninflected way. The elderly Soviet champion (Michel Piccoli) is challenged by the vigorous, young, arrogant emigre (Alexandre Arbatt). The tournament becomes as much a psychological contest as a chess match, with the Soviet entourage and the emigre's organization jockeying back and forth to gain an advantage. Lighting levels, types of pieces, parapsychologists, tardiness, choice of openings, even throwing away hard won advantages in position and material are used for purely psychological purposes. Finally, to cover the champion's physical collapse, the Soviets use the challenger's wife, incarcerated in a Soviet asylum, as a final weapon.
The fundamental problem with Dangerous Moves is that Richard Dembo, the writer/director, doesn't really have anything important to say about his subject and doesn't know how to make the story itself strong enough to carry the film without an underlying theme. Dembo's story lacks any real points of interest, beyond the question of who wins the tournament, and that isn't enough.
Dembo chooses to avoid focusing much on chess itself, in the hopes of reaching a wider audience. Other than an occasional aside from the spectators, we are told little about the chess strategies used by the players. The chessboard seems a peripheral object, and I suppose this comes as close to a theme as Dembo has. Perhaps he wished to demonstrate that all games, when they become important enough to their players, are really decided at a level above that of the game's mechanics. Not a bad theme, but Dembo certainly doesn't develop it, not even to the extent that I'm sure it's what he was getting at. Chess fans are also likely to be bemused by the rarity of draws in this tournament.
In addition to Piccoli, the cast features Leslie Caron as his wife and Liv Ullman as the wife of his opponent. Caron has very little to do, and Ullman is given an underwritten part. Both actresses do their best with what they're given. Piccoli and Arbatt are both good, as is the supporting cast. None of the performances are exceptional. Neither are any of the competent technical aspects of the film.
Dangerous Moves is sort of the Swiss equivalent of a TV movie. It seems to be saying something, but really isn't about anything at all. I doubt if anyone will be offended or bored by it, but I also doubt if anyone will be moved or intellectually stimulated by it. A distinct lack of passion, or even real interest, on the part of the filmmakers cripples Dangerous Moves.
As the winner of the Acadamy Award this year, Dangerous Moves is likely to get the normal kind of release afforded to prestige foreign films, which means a month or so in big cities' specialty theaters and a week or two in smaller cities theaters. I would not count on it becoming a staple in revival theaters.
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