VIFF 2023: The Delinquents

Directed by: Rodrigo Moreno
Distributed by: MUBI

Written by Michael Clawson

Coming on the heels of the comparably sprawling “Trenque Lauquen” from Laura Citarella, the arrival of Rodrigo Moreno’s “The Delinquents” marks a triumphant moment for boundary-breaking Argentine cinema. This lengthy, enchanting marvel of a film begins in vaguely familiar territory, cleverly playing workplace comedy off of heist movie suspense. But it unfurls in unforeseen directions, building towards something more expansive, magical, and full of possibilities. What looks at first like it will be a somewhat straightforward caper morphs into a delightful dismantling of genre conventions.

Daniel Elías plays Morán, a schlubby bank worker in Buenos Aires who successfully robs his own bank in the film’s opening stretch. Morán isn’t a thief with dreams of glamor and riches; he simply wants to retire, to free himself of the stultifying chore that corporate labor amounts to under modern capitalism (this is the rare art film that has spiritual kinship with “Office Space.”) So Morán doesn’t steal an enormous sum of money. Instead, he steals precisely two times the salary he’d earn by working until retirement age, half of which will go to the co-worker he ropes into his scheme. 

The co-worker in question is Román (Esteban Bigliardi), who Morán asks to hold the stolen dough while Morán turns himself in and serves a prison term. Once Morán is out, he and Román will each take their share, and they’ll never suffer the punishing florescence of their bank branch’s lighting again. Román agrees, but with intense hesitation. He’s immediately wracked with paranoia and guilt as he fears being caught and watches his colleagues pay the consequences of his branch’s security breach. Midway through Morán’s prison stint, Román crumples under the pressure, and agrees with Morán to temporarily hide the cash in the countryside. 

Moreno bifurcates “The Delinquents” into two title-card-labeled parts (he reportedly imagined there being an intermission, but did away with that idea after Cannes, where the film premiered, disallowed it). The film’s immense joys often lie in Moreno’s toying with different stylistic modes across the two halves. As we watch Morán plot and execute his theft in part one, the pairing of Moreno’s close attention to process with the symphonic music of Astor Piazzolla brings notes of 1940s suspense thrillers. Then there’s the pleasure of Moreno’s witty and absurdist comic sensibility, exemplified in scenes where the bank’s management tries to sniff out Morán’s accomplice, who they believe is among the bank staff (in a welcome appearance, “Trenque Lauquen’s” Laura Paredes plays a tough-cop financial investigator). And then there are moments of ambiguity and wonder, such as when the bank staff find two customers with identical signatures. Fraud, or miraculous coincidence? Teasingly, Moreno leaves some questions up in the air.

The strange incident of identical signatures gestures toward the fable-like enchantment of part two, which is lighter and airier as the story departs from the urban environs of part one for the natural landscape of the countryside. It’s there that Román meets and falls for a member of a small film crew when he goes to hide the money (in one of the script’s many playfully poetic flourishes, the crew’s names are all anagrams of Román/Morán). Román’s time with the film troupe is wonderfully beguiling: it’s a sunny afternoon when they meet beside a river, and through marvelous filmmaking that foregrounds the lush natural surroundings, Moreno grants the encounter a transfixing mysteriousness. While an easy-going romance flowers between Román and Norma (Margarita Molfino, effortlessly charming), Morán does his prison time, which comes with its own ironies and poetry before he is eventually released. 

Through both its construction and narrative, “The Delinquents” ruminates on the meaning of, and the desire for, freedom, whether from the soul-sucking drudgery of work or from the confines of cinematic genre. Its second half has plot twists, but they don’t lead to any definite future for Román or Morán. In its offbeat and lyrical way, “The Delinquents” frames liberation as merely a starting point, from which the possible paths forward are manifold and sure to contain surprises.

“The Delinquents” Trailer

“The Delinquents” was screened as part of the 2023 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Michael Clawson is a member of the Seattle Film Critic Society you can follow his passion for film on Letterboxd.

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