Thr Defence of the Dragon (2017)| Cannes Film Festival | Quinzaine des Realisateurs

May 24th, 2017
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Natalia Santa; Cast: Gonzalo Sagarminaga, Hernan Mendez, Manuel Navarro; France/Columbia 2017, 79 min.

Natalia Santa’s debut is a brilliantly acted tragi-comedy, full of innovative ideas and told with great aplomb. With shades of Pablo Stoll’s Whisky (2004), it follows three desperate, ageing men, who have great difficulty surviving in 21st century downtown Bogota, for different reasons.

Samuel (Sagarminaga) is a fifty-three year old professional chess player and private tutor, divorced with a young daughter – whom he neglects like all the women in his life. Joaquin (Mendez) is a watchmaker in his mid sixties, not earning enough to pay the rent, Marcos (Navarro) a 70 something homeopath completes the trio whose regular hangout is the local dilapidated Lasker Chess Club and the Normanda Café.

Samuel is gloomy and resigned, only coming alive when chess is involved. His male company is much desired, not only by his landlady’s young daughter, who tries her best to seduce him – in vain – but also by the mother of his young maths student, an illustrator adamant to set up a private meeting with Samuel. Joaquin is the most likeable of the three: He can empathise with his friends, but he is really a prisoner of times gone by – the word digital makes him feel uneasy. Marcos is really a user, exploiting his assistant not only on a professional level, but also in the bedroom. Worse of all, he is a homophobic estranged from his gay son who has been killed in a bear attack. When two of the men find themselves homeless, clearly they have to change.

Santa always keeps a certain distance from her characters: they are analysed, but never denounced. The humour is deadpan, bleak and always carries a certain undertone of mournfulness. Santa paints them as dinosaurs who have maintained a strong macho identity: silent and withdrawn. They make their way though life like little boys lost in the woods, whistling to overcome their fear and loneliness, which they naturally deny. Rarely leaving their homes, and barricading themselves in, they are characters from a bygone era in the streets of Bogota. Samuel and Joaquin live in reduced circumstances, whilst Marcos’ house is full of ornaments and paintings: he pretends to be upper-class, but is as broke as his friends and even more unwilling to change. The visuals match the narrative in their love of small details. Intricate medium shots show the inner shabbiness of these men. Santa skilfully controls her narrative keeping the tension just right in this well-paced and engrossing drama. An astonishing masterclass on a micro-budget filmaking.


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