The Dark Horse, the true story of New Zealand speed chess champion, Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis), radiates compassion and mercy. Potini suffers with bipolar disorder. The opening scene sets the tone for the whole film. Gen, as he is called, wanders the rain-soaked streets wrapped in a patchwork quilt. He’s drawn to a pawn shop by the chess set in the window. The people in the shop show him compassion as he’s obviously mentally disturbed but they don’t quite know what to do with him.
The Power of Positive
When he’s released from the mental hospital, he is remanded into his brother, Ariki’s (Wayne Hapi), custody whose lifestyle as part of a violent gang does not exactly help Gen’s recovery. Looking for something positive to do as suggested by his therapists, Gen asks to be involved with the Easter Knights, a local chess club for underprivileged kids. At first, Noble (Kirk Torrence), who runs the club expresses doubt. Will it be good for the kids to have someone mentally unstable around? Gen charms his way into Noble’s good graces with his sincerity and compassion. Upon attending his first meeting, Gen is surprised that the club, meeting in Noble’s garage, doesn’t even have enough chess boards for all the kids to play.
When Gen’s nephew, Mana (James Rolleston) becomes interested in his work with the Eastern Knights, Mana wants to join them. He sees how devoted his uncle is to the kids but Ariki already has plans for his son, wanting him to be inducted into the gang. The induction is violent and criminal. Rejecting Gen’s positive influence on Mana, Ariki kicks Gen out of the house, giving him a bit of money for lodging.
Living for Others
Instead of spending the money for a roof over his head, Gen elects to sleep outside at a local park and uses the money to buy chess sets for the kids. He teaches the game using Maori stories as metaphors for the way pieces move on the board. When Gen challenges the kids to learn well enough to compete in an upcoming tournament, they rise to the occasion, throwing their hearts and souls into the task.
Mana finds out about Gen’s homelessness but continues coming to Gen to learn chess. Things explode when Gen and Noble spirit Mana away from home so he can join the rest of the Eastern Knights at the chess tournament.
Brokenness to Compassion
Cliff Curtis’s superb performance as Gen raises a sometimes saccharine genre, that of the inspirational mentor, to amazing heights. He expertly captures the range of emotions Gen experiences from mental breakdowns to stressing over the kids at the tournament to showing great strength in standing up to his brother on Mana’s behalf.
What impressed me most about Gen’s story (and why I enjoyed Curtis’s stirring performance so much) is the depth of the compassion Gen showed to the kids of the chess club and especially to his nephew. He chose to become homeless in order to help the Eastern Knights, a great sacrifice. Through suffering with a mental illness and knowing what it was like to be an outcast, Gen learned the great gift of compassion. His experiences could have led him to be bitter towards life but he turned his brokenness to love, mercy, and compassion.
Each of us is broken in one way or another. It may not be mental illness, as in Gen’s case, but perhaps some situation has us broken. Maybe near occasions of sin seem unbearably near or insurmountable. A broken situation cannot always be healed but an attitude of brokenness can. If we allow it, from our own brokenness can come compassion and mercy. Just as Gen’s compassion and care changed Mana’s life, so can the compassion that flows from brokenness bring healing and love to others.