Static camerawork elides with static lives in Natalia Santa’s rigorously controlled, fitfully amusing debut “The Dragon Defense.” With a spare, understated sense of humor that feels somewhat related to a Latin American version of the Kaurismaki brothers, the film follows three old friends in Bogotá who’ve lost traction on their lives. Rutted in a colorless routine and stymied in love and professions, the trio play chess together while treading water, until small changes enable them to move forward. Santa’s minimalist approach, as much influenced by photography as indie cinema, will tickle festival programmers keen to augment their South of the Border line-up.
Obsolescence is writ so large here that it might as well be another character. Watch repairman Joaquin (Hernán Méndez, “The Colors of the Mountain”) surrounds himself with outmoded technology, from gramophones to analog cash registers to the watches and clocks themselves, their brown patinas practically melding into a dulled wood-grain sameness. His regular chess pals, Samuel (Gonzalo de Sagarminaga) and Marcos (Manuel Navarro) are also trapped in a cul-de-sac of the past, stuck in post-midlife stasis on both professional and personal fronts. Samuel is a divorced ex-math teacher who earns a bit of extra money by tutoring, but mostly meets the bills with chess tournaments. Marcos is a gambling-addicted doctor whose estranged son has gone missing, and whose clandestine relationship with nurse Josefina (Victoria Hernandez) is less a secret than he thinks.
All live in a milk-chocolate-colored world (yes, even Samuel’s walls are painted brown), with the only relief coming via the quirky, brightly lit apartment of Matilde (Maia Landaburu), a children’s illustrator whose son seems to be Samuel’s sole math pupil. Santa oddly casts the nice, rather bland tutor as catnip to women of all ages — his neighbor’s nubile daughter Julieta (Laura Oma) exudes hormonal impatience when at his side, while Matilde’s more mature interest is just as palpably felt. Julieta is an especially unfortunate character, created to be ridiculed and fulfilling no logical need in the storyline.
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Though Samuel appears just as interested in the more age-appropriate Matilde as she is in him, he’s unable to muster the necessary gumption to act on it. So it goes with all the men in the movie, from debt-ridden Joaquin to deflated Marcos: Each one is sad-eyed and useless, incapable of grabbing hold of life. They barely make any moves outside the gameboard, and their self-protection isn’t winning them anything in life.
The narrative’s shift comes in the same minor key as everything else, so small events start unclogging the protagonists’ lives not in a demonstrably cathartic manner, but in the way tiny granules might begin to unblock a backed-up pipe. Whether it’s enough to engage an audience depends very much on whether they’re as invested in Santa’s exercise in style as much as in her gently eccentric characters.
In chess, a “dragon move” is a defensive play ensuring the king is protected by another piece; similarly, the men of “Dragon Defense” learn that difficulties can only be overcome when opening themselves up to the help of others. The metaphor must have felt satisfying on paper, yet viewers may struggle to recall more than a mildly pleasant sensation derived mostly from Santa’s idiosyncratic characters and their meticulously constructed environments.
The coffee shop where the friends meet, the down-market gambling den, the watch repair shop — all carry the weight of dust-covered nostalgia with their utilitarian 1950s furniture and outmoded aura. Each shot is austerely composed in the manner of a photograph, the characters largely placed close to the picture plane except in Matilde’s apartment, where the openness and light offer a welcome respite from the low wattage elsewhere.