SUBTE-POLSKA: memory, vitality and loves from the past


Subte-Polska is an Argentine gem about a nonagenarian chess master addressing his own memory, vitality and the need to find closure with his past.  A promising first feature for writer-director Alejandro Magnone, Subte Polska is the sleeper Must See at this year’s SFJFF.

Great movie. Off-putting title.

Tadeusz (Hector Bidonde) is a working class nonagenarian chess master. He’s still able to win several simultaneous chess matches, but his age is catching up to him and he has periods of confusion and memory loss. His doc has prescribed meds that counteract the memory loss, but he refuses to take them because they…wait for it…diminish his sexual performance.

His adult adopted son (Marcelo Xicarte) is understandably frustrated because he has to keep tracking down an unnecessarily (from his perspective) addled old man. And the son is in a touchy period in his own marriage.

Tadeusz is a Communist Jew who left Poland, his family and his girlfriend to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. He found another lover in Spain, but he left her,too, when they were defeated by Franco. Tadeusz’ family didn’t survive Hitler. That’s a lot of loss, and Tadeusz dealt with it by emigrating to Argentina and LITERALLY going underground. To avoid triggering painful memories, he gets a job constructing and then working in the Buenos Aires subway system. He sets up his son as a subway driver, and his best buddies also work in the subway, including the guy who runs the underground newsstand (Manuel Callau).

As Subte-Polska unfolds, Magnone explores our sense of memory, and how we consciously and subconsciously handle both the cherished memories and the devastating ones.  As he takes and abstains from taking his meds, Tadeusz’s short-term memory ebbs and flows.  This is a guy who has framed his entire life to suppress the memories of his youth, but he begins to remember his youth more and more vividly.  As he remembers, he feels a need to find closure.

Tadeusz is a strong-willed person, and Subte-Polska is pretty funny as he causes consternation in his son, doctor and friends – in everybody except his well-serviced girlfriend and his ball-busting old friend from their first days underground.  Marcelo Xicarte and Manuel Callau both prove to be excellent comic actors.

Speaking of acting, Hector Bidonde delivers a magnificent lead performance.  Bidonde plays someone who has always been determined to do what he wants, stubborn to his core, still confident in his beliefs, mental acuity and sexual prowess, but occasionally shaken by moments of confusion.

You have three chances to catch Subte-Polska at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival:

  • Cinearts (Palo Alto), Sunday, July 23 4:25 PM
  • Castro (San Francisco), Wednesday, July 26 4:05 PM
  • Albany Twin (Twin), Tuesday, August 1 6:30 PM.

The SFJFF runs from July 20 through August 6 at theaters in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Albany, San Rafael and Oakland. You can peruse the entire program and buy tickets and passes at San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Subte-Polska is funny, insightful and moving. I’m still mulling it over.  This film deserves a US distributor – and a US distributor who changes the title. After all, it’s a subtitled movie about a 90-year-old; ya gotta help the audience want to see this.  It’s the under-the-radar Must See at this year’s SFJFF.

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