Monday, April 15, 2024

Fantaspoa ’24: Mastergame

“B” is the sort of film character Garry Kasparov would probably approve of, and possibly relate to, as both a chess master and a human rights activist. Arrested during the Soviet crackdown on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the Catholic priest is being held in conditions of extreme mental and physical isolation. His only distraction is a slim book about chess. If that sounds familiar, it is because this film is also based on Stefan Zweig’s novella, “The Royal Game,” just like Philipp Stolzl’s recent Chess Story. However, Barnabas Toth takes Zweig’s themes in a very David Lynchian direction, while revisiting Hungary’s traumatic Communist history in Mastergame, which screens during this year’s Fantaspoa in Porto Alegre.

Istvan and Marta are two young anti-Communist lovers desperately trying to leave Hungary, before the Soviets seal the borders. Normally, you want to be on the “last train out,” no matter the cost, but there is something ominous about this train, beyond its
Casablanca like collection of former revolutionaries, Communist spies, and petty criminals. A mild-mannered priest is also aboard (who maybe not so coincidentally bears some resemblance to Cardinal Mindszenty).

The priest is only referred to as “B” during the interrogations that make up
Mastergame’s other timeline. According to his file, B withstood extraordinary physical torture while he was a prisoner of the Nazis, so they opt for different methods. They forbid the deeply humanistic cleric any human contact, even hiding the faces of his captors. His interrogator wants to break his spirit by severing his connection to humanity. However, the chance discovery of the chess book gives him something to occupy his mind.

If you know
Chess Story or “The Royal Game,” you have a good idea of what is really going on, but the addition of the Marta-Istvan subplot adds an intriguing new dimension. In terms of tone, Mastergame feels very much like vintage Lynch ostensibly working in the mystery genre, as in Mulholland Drive. In fact, the skullduggery on the train is so well executed, Mastergame will be keenly suspenseful, even for the world’s greatest authority on Zweig. On top of that, setting the story amid the Hungarian Revolution adds a greater sense of grand historical tragedy.

Karoly Hajdok is absolutely extraordinary playing the fractured parts of B’s psyche. It is both a harrowing and profoundly humane performance. Pal Macsai is appropriately chilling as his chess rival, Czentovics Sandor, but in a sneaky, understated way. Although Istvan’s personal flaws are initially off-putting, it is fascinating to watch Gergely Varadi’s performance as the defeated revolutionary, while he slowly pieces the puzzle together.

It is also great fun to watch Toth’s mastery of film noir elements, especially considering what a departure
Mastergame is from his previous film Those Who Remained, which also addressed Hungary’s Communist experience in a very thoughtful manner. He has mentioned Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Night Train as a reference film, which makes perfect sense. Out of the last five Zweig films [I have reviewed], Mastergame is by far the best—and Chess Story was quite good. Very highly recommended, Mastergame screens again this Saturday (4/20) during Fantaspoa.