Behind Bars
By Caitlin Quinlan

The Delinquents
Dir. Rodrigo Moreno, Argentina, MUBI

If your place of work already looks and feels like a prison cell, with heavy padlocked doors, thick iron bars, and regimented procedures, does it really make a difference if you swap one for the other? In Rodrigo Moreno’s The Delinquents, Buenos Aires bank treasurer Morán (Daniel Elías) thinks not. If anything, prison is the better deal—if, as Morán predicts, he’d get three and a half years in the clink for bank robbery, it easily beats another 20 in employment. So, with little fanfare, he steals an amount equivalent to twice his salary for another two decades from the bank’s stores, hides it away, and turns himself in.

It’s perhaps the most mundane heist ever shown on screen, but its absurdity is crucial to the film’s design and sustained deadpan tone. The Delinquents is not a high-octane crime thriller about fleeing the law, but a whimsical, delicate tale of self-fulfillment and liberation in a capitalist society, and a narrative that defies logic and realism for the sake of its own freedom. It meanders along a dramatic path over three languid hours, so that the passing of time is intensely felt but also savored; there is no clocking in and out here, in a world where time is yours to enjoy.

Even in prison, time can be appreciated, as a satisfied Morán awaits his final, self-earned reward. His unwitting accomplice in the crime is colleague Román (Esteban Bigliardi), with whom Morán is willing to split the cash on the condition that he hides it for him while he’s in jail. Román’s own curiosity keeps him from refusing his friend’s sudden whim, but he’s also a perfect partner in this particular case—he was absent from the bank on the day of the theft because of a doctor’s appointment, a convenient coincidence that arouses the suspicions of the bank’s farcical investigative team looking into the robbery (which includes Argentinian arthouse favorite Laura Paredes, known for La Flor and Trenque Lauquen, as a brilliantly comic hardballer who bullies their innocent co-workers for the truth).

Once the deliberate banality of the heist itself is over, the film transcends to a higher plane where a floating, romantic vision of the pastoral comes to life and Morán’s decision to leave the bank becomes entirely unobjectionable—if it weren’t already. To hide the money, Román is sent on a quest out of the city—cross the bridge, wade through the stream, climb the hill—that is childlike in its sense of adventure. Once he finds this mystery land, visited by Morán just before he was imprisoned, the film’s narrative grows looser and more fantastical but also more interrogative of the tensions between the city and the rural, their respective restrictions and freedoms, and what it means to uproot your life for one or the other. After Román is pulled towards that rurality, his curiosity leads him to a group of friends sitting by the water. They are a vision in bucolic splendor, shot in warm tones and framed with a clean, tableau-like precision, by DP Alejo Maglio. One of them asks if Román is “from this world.” They’re in an “apparition zone,” they tell him; “the word mystery doesn’t explain anything now,” the cult Argentine poet Ricardo Zelarayán wrote in “The Great Salt Flats,” a work Morán, meanwhile, reads in his prison cell.

Indeed, mystery cannot explain certain things about these characters’ lives, like why their names all form anagrams of each other’s—Morán, Román, Norma, Ramon, Morna—or why Morán’s boss, Del Toro (Germán De Silva), now appears alongside him in jail as longtime prisoner Garrincha. Morán and Román, in particular, are beguilingly interlinked: are these two men balanced on either side of a scale, one buoyed by fortune as the other descends in suffering and vice versa, or are they somehow extensions of the same being, experiencing all of it at once? Moreno is playful with parallels and mimicry throughout the film—on several occasions the director employs a split screen device to show the characters engaged in the same activity in separate spaces. In one of these scenes, both men reach for a cigarette on their respective bedside tables, but in the divided screen it appears that they reach towards one another, like a Michelangelo fresco of divine interaction.

So even as Román reaps the benefits of Morán’s efforts, lounging in the sun with Norma (Margarita Molfino) who, it will come to be known, has been lover to both of them, Morán is comfortable in the knowledge that happiness awaits them both. The tone is light and airy throughout, but never frivolous; there is whimsy, yet it serves to highlight the sense of wonder with which we could view the world if only the routines of daily life allowed it. Still, Moreno is measured in his approach to this suggestion of appraising one’s life and particularly when concerned with the dichotomy between city and countryside living; when we learn of Morán’s visit to the mythic apparition zone and his own love affair with Norma, he inevitably seems to her like a townie entertaining an unsustainable rural dream.

By the time Morán’s prison sentence is up, Román has perhaps tasted enough of another existence, while Morán is only getting started. Choose either path, Moreno seems to say, it doesn’t matter. What counts is the pleasure of the ambling journey, the detour, the mystery of the route. Maybe the grass is greener on the other side of work, committed relationships, your hometown, but perhaps it’s not. While Moreno most explicitly subverts the tensions and tactics of the crime genre in The Delinquents’ opening hour, the rest of the film turns the fundamentals of linear, narrative drama on their heads, too, with fluid, dreamlike storytelling. It’s a film committed to pleasant amusements and bizarre turns of events, a funhouse mirror to the real world, where things that should be unusual, like the daily soul-crushing of corporate work, are mundane. Mystery might not explain anything now, but has it ever?