Colombian writer-director Natalia Santa explores the glum depths of the male psyche in her chess-themed debut feature.
A downbeat ensemble drama about three luckless old friends adrift in lives of quiet desperation, The Dragon’s Defense delivers more subtle pleasures than it might initially promise. But Colombian writer-director Natalia Santa’s debut feature, which premiered in Cannes in the Directors’ Fortnight, is still a little too understated for its own good. Commercial prospects will be slim, but indulgent festival audiences are more likely to embrace this wry, compassionate female perspective on some uncomfortably familiar midlife male traits, which demands patience and perseverance before it repays the viewer in deadpan charm.
Named after a chess move, Santa’s low-voltage mood piece takes place in the shabby cafes, dilapidated apartments and low-rent casinos of the Colombian capital of Bogota. The closest thing to a protagonist here is 53-year-old Samuel, played by a hangdog Gonzalo de Sagarminaga, who also does double duty as the film’s score composer. Samuel is a scruffy, deadbeat math teacher and sometime chess tutor who is separated from his wife and young daughter. He now lives in a drab rented room, where his landlady’s beautiful adolescent daughter (Laura Osma) singles him out for implausibly brazen flirtation.
Between long hours hanging out at Bogota’s semi-legendary downtown chess club Lasker, where he plays strangers against the clock, Samuel fills his days mooching around bars and casinos with his two older buddies, homeopathic doctor Marcos (Manuel Navarro) and analog watch repairman Joaquin (Hernan Mendez). Bonded by their shared love of chess and gambling, this glum trio gossip, bicker, drink, play poker, smoke marijuana and generally avoid facing up to their personal failings. Deep down, all three appear to be caught in a mildly depressive downward spiral. “Guys like me are no good for anything,” says Samuel with a fatalistic shrug.
When real drama happens in The Dragon’s Defense, it mostly occurs offscreen. After a family tragedy, a business bankruptcy and an abrupt eviction all arise in swift succession, the three friends are forced to address the risk-averse complacency that has led them into this lonely, loveless limbo. Clawing back some shreds of self-esteem, Samuel finally rises to the challenge when fate throws him a remote shot at romantic redemption.
In visual terms, Santa mostly frames these underlit interiors and mundane street scenes as flatly symmetrical tableaux in static master shots, a lo-fi aesthetic that initially seems like budgetary necessity, but which starts to look increasingly artful as the drama develops. The director works in conjunction with stills photographer Ivan Herrera, known for his grungy monochrome portraits of Bogota, including a series based around the Lasker chess club.
The emotional tenor of The Dragon’s Defense barely wavers throughout its slight 80-minute span. It ends as it begins, on a gentle and inconclusive note, but leaves behind an agreeably bittersweet aftertaste. The soundtrack is peppered with flavorsome vintage tango songs, a melancholy throwback to the faded youth of these genial loser protagonists. There also appears to be a fleeting reference to Russian master director Andrei Tarkovsky in a later scene, which could be Santa hinting at grander cinematic aspirations, or merely winking at observant viewers who have stuck with her this far.
Production companies: Galaxia 311
Cast: Gonzalo de Sagarminaga, Hernan Mendez, Manuel Navarro, Victoria Hernandez, Maia Landaburu, Martha Leal, Laura Osma
Director-screenwriter: Nicola Santa
Producer: Ivette Liang
Executive producers: Ivette Liang, Nicolas Ordonez, Natalia Santa, Ivan Herrera
Cinematogapher: Nicolas Ordonez, Ivan Herrera
Editor: Juan Soto
Music: Gonzalo de Sagarminaga
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Sales: M-Appeal, Berlin