The collision of two fortysomething shipwrecks seeking redemption is at the quiet heart of “Love in Self Defense,” Rafa Russo’s absorbing, slow-burning helming debut. Starting out like a scam movie but quickly mutating into something far more distinctive and emotionally complex, pic’s rewards are not immediately evident. Its careful script and fine central perfs are calculated to sidestep the obvious, but pics’ commitment to its offbeat premise and its emotional truth shine through. “Love’s” unfashionable pleasures are unlikely to appeal to the mainstream, but may click with a discerning arthouse public offshore in restricted territories.
Pic gets its narrative hooks in quickly, showing a deft swindle executed by Argentinean Ruben (Gustavo Garzon), an ex soccer-player who travels around Spain identifying people’s weaknesses. But the promise of an enjoyable scam item is quickly complicated when Ruben meets wannabe artist and former hippie Adriana (Ana Fernandez) in a hotel bar.
Both are directionless divorcees; he tells lies, and she clearly has things to hide, which will slowly emerge: it’s the perfect match. Before long, they’re living in an apartment she’s looking after for a friend. Early dialogues are heavy with ambiguity, the viewer unclear as to whether Adriana isn’t another of Ruben’s victims. His offer of marriage and her acceptance feels too hasty, as though both are anxious to prove they are good people underneath it all.
The cracks quickly start to show as Ruben heads off in search of more victims and cash, claiming a business trip. Meanwhile, Adriana goes in pursuit of her son, Damian (Andres Gertrudix), who she has treated badly as a kid. Pic is over-leisurely through its middle section, with the disappearance of Ruben and the arrival of Damian, but picks up again over the final half-hour.
On the surface, both protags are obnoxious; what redeems them is their innocent belief that love will solve everything — and their ignorance of the fact it may already be too late. This is emotionally intricate stuff that the script handles with skill and pursues to its final consequences.
Garzon’s wide smile and lilting Argentine voice make Ruben a persuasively seductive rogue, but never loses sight of the good guy inside who slowly comes to the fore. Fernandez, who sometimes struggles to engage with her roles, is quietly commanding here. Minor character work is also solid, particularly Manuel Moron as one of Ruben’s later marks.
Stylistically stripped-back pic is set on Spain’s east coast, presented by d.p. Daniel Aranyo as the kind of romantic paradise where love might flourish. Soundtrack consists mostly of attractively folksy, English-language guitar-based songs written and performed by the helmer.