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The Delinquents (Rodrigo Moreno, 2023)

The Delinquents, directed by Argentine filmmaker Rodrigo Moreno, is a delightful matryoshka doll of a movie that yields its secrets through its many meandering narrative detours. The film picks up on a mainstay theme of the New Argentine Cinema: the disquietude of workers following the collapse of the nation’s economy in the late 2000s. While numerous Argentine directors—including Alejo Moguillansky, Mariano Llinás, and Lucía Seles—have conveyed this sense of national restlessness more broadly, The Delinquents homes in on the slow collapse of a corroded late-capitalist system as the underlying cause for his characters’ woes.

Crackling with deadpan humor, Moreno’s picaresque fable about the drudgery of office work is, however, far from a grim social treatise. The winding narrative revolves around two unassuming, seemingly feckless middle-aged bank workers, Morán (Daniel Elías) and Román (Esteban Bigliardi), who discover a shared affinity—for a bagful of money. To Morán—who devises a heist to defraud the bank where he’s worked for decades, and who then turns himself in—a prison sentence is a small price to pay for a chance at (eventual) freedom from his daily drudgery. Meanwhile, Román, entrusted with the loot while his friend serves time, finds that the money ruins both his peace and the stability of his relationships. In the end, becoming rich turns out to be as nerve-racking an experience, and as much a source of existential crisis, as it is an opportunity to radically rethink the paradigms of work, money, leisure, and romantic love.

Though The Delinquents offers up a hilarious vision of what it means to throw in the towel and go off the grid for good, it is also, through an unlikely subplot that has Román briefly participate in the making of a movie, an homage to cinema as a frivolous art. In a world driven mad by efficiency and productivity, the film suggests, the precious frivolity of art can restore the humanity in us.

I spoke to Moreno last June over Skype, shortly after the film premiered at Cannes. The Delinquents will have its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 11, 12, and 13, before opening at Film at Lincoln Center on October 18.

How did you come upon the idea for The Delinquents?

An old Argentine classic film by Hugo Fregonese, Apenas un delincuente [Hardly a Criminal] (1949), has the same starting point as my film. Fregonese’s film is about a man who works in a place with a lot of money. He decides to steal and to hide it, then go to the police, confess his crime, and serve the sentence. I was interested in taking this premise further—I kept the main character’s name and the word “delinquent” in the title, in order not to hide the reference—and then in creating a dialogue between my generation and classic cinema, because there’s no dialogue at all between my generation and the Argentine cinema from the 1940s and ‘50s. It was supposedly the Golden Era of cinema, but it is not reflected in the cinema that we make today.

Is this disconnect from the Golden Era due to the fact that classic cinema is just not being seen enough? Or is it that young filmmakers today don’t find it relevant enough?

There are many reasons. Firstly, we don’t have a national cinematheque in Argentina—for me, this is key. Not having a cinematheque in a country that makes 200 films per year, as Argentina does, and that has such a long cinema history, is a tragedy. One of the consequences is the lack of dialogue between new and old generations of Argentine filmmakers. There are no places to see the films of the Golden Era. Of course, we have the internet and YouTube, where you can watch whatever you want, but we lack something more structured that allows people involved in films to create a dialogue among different generations of cinemagoers in the same country.

The Golden Era cinema is [also] very far from us, because it’s a cinema made in another country. Argentina is a new country—it differs from the European ones in this sense. It’s a country that changes its skin every 20 years. One of the reasons why I was really interested in having a dialogue with Fregonese is because he shot his film shortly after the Second World War, when capitalism was really advancing, and spreading. In Fregonese’s film, the main character’s dream of getting the money had to do with the idea of being a millionaire, leading a luxurious life. Times have changed completely. We are experiencing the crisis of capitalism. I wanted to place the notion of working—or should I say, stoppage of work—at the center of the conflict. The alienation of today’s workers means that the notion of leisure, of free time, is no longer part of the conversation. I wanted my main character to concoct a plan and commit a crime, in order to stop working—to dream of another kind of life. My dialogue with Fregonese is then about rereading those times, and, at the same time, it’s a way of revisiting classic cinema, and doing some justice to it. My film is full of these gestures.

While watching your film I kept thinking of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Robert Bresson’s L’Argent (1983). They’re very different tonally, yet they share a certain sense of moral disquiet. In your film, there’s also an existentialist question of how one is to live today.

I thought of the two main characters, Román and Morán, as complementary. They both learn to take risks, and rethink their lives. They represent two possible destinies: one chooses adventure, the [other] suffers the routine of giving most of his life to the job—in this case, to the bank. It’s like a monster with two heads.

You mention Dog Day Afternoon, but my point of view is different, because Lumet’s film is realistic and mine is a fable. In this sense, I’m more indebted to cinema than reality. I try to develop a unique cinematic language, which implies forgetting to be realistic. This forgetting allows me to play with anagrams—i.e., Morán/Román, etc.—and with the idea of mirrors, which I evoke all the time with the split screen, the names, using the same actor to play two roles, etc. In my childhood, there was a collection of books titled Choose Your Own Adventure. For example, you would read, “If you want John to go to the moon, skip ahead to page 54. If you want John to stay at home, go on to the next page.” My work is a bit like this.

Raúl Ruiz once said that whenever you want to make a film, you always end up making two. There’s the film on the surface, and then the other film that you must contrabandear— sneak into the film. So I have these two guys who decide to get involved with a robbery and to change their lives, and who share a destiny with the same girl, having similar love stories with her. And yet, at the same time, there’s another level. Perhaps this sounds pretentious, but for me, my film is also a poetic action—something less narrative. You’ve mentioned the word “existential.” It could be. But not only existential. There’s something more leggero, or lighter.

Which elements in the story come specifically from this lighter, playful place?

There are many moments in the film like that. Whenever the narration takes a detour, and branches out into an uncertain territory. Sometimes, I really didn’t know what I was trying to make at the moment of shooting—or while editing. In terms of storytelling, the film then becomes more “invertebrate.” Does that word exist in English? For me, it’s poetic.

For example?

When the characters are playing a nonsensical game about world capitals, or when they say names of cities and the entire scene is about that.

I think of the New Argentine Cinema as very literary, in the sense that it embodies the art of digression and is very much picaresque. Your story moves sideways. But while there’s a literary feel, many details are also concrete and grounded, such as the drudgery of work at the bank.

Because that’s reality. I’m talking about the material world, so in those places the film is somehow analogical. I believe that nowadays, when virtuality dominates every step of our lives, it’s important to come back to this materiality. That’s why, when you see the bank in The Delinquents, you don’t understand exactly when this story is taking place. Is it the ’80s? The ’90s? Is it now? The street is today. People are wearing masks, because we shot some parts of the film during the pandemic. This has to do with the love for materiality—for real, material things.

Of course, there’s also Bresson in the air. That’s why I decided to show a cinema screen where L’Argent is projected, because the Bressonian language is very material: it’s the banknotes, the hands holding the banknotes. These gestures are so material that they make us care. I really care about the hand grabbing a box, or the hand stamping a paper. I’ve mentioned the word “invertebral”—it means having no spine, and that’s exactly what I want in storytelling. But, in terms of mise en scène, I try to recall the verve of cinema that is made of materiality.

The banknotes become a protagonist in the film, and also a rhythmic element. For example, counting them introduces a certain anxious tempo in some scenes.

Yes, but, at the same time, they’re an absurdist object. This explains the ending of the film, when finally the money is not so important. When the money’s being counted very fast, the scene becomes very comic. Money doesn’t make happiness.

The New Argentine Cinema often features similar casts from film to film. What does this repertory style of working bring to the movies?

At the beginning of the 21st century, in parallel with the New Argentine Cinema, there was a very strong theater scene in Buenos Aires. Many groups of young people came up and made theater in patios, houses, and in other informal, unconventional spaces. Most of them—nearly all of those actors—come from this movement, if I can call it that. The New Argentine films are possibly nourished by these actors.

In my case, some of the actors that I chose for The Delinquents were the actors that I worked with before. For me, it’s very important to create a kind of family where we speak the same language, [in order] to find the right tone. What’s the sound of the film? Not the sound design, but the language. Rehearsals help to find this music. In this case, most of the actors had known each other from theater or cinema for the past 20 years, so it was easier for me to play with them and to find the common language.

I imagine that this is especially important for comedy, since, even though some of the lines are delivered very naturally, others are deliberately flat and absurdist—which really depends on the actors’ ability to have a feel for this kind of specific film language.

Absolutely. For me, it’s very important, since I don’t do casting calls. I choose actors by having a coffee with them in a bar and having a conversation. Their sense of humor is crucial. When I’m writing, I like to incorporate certain comic lines or facts in the scenes—for example, when a former smoker [who swears he’s quit smoking] holds a cigarette in his mouth. I need actors who know how to play this kind of game, because if they don’t have a natural sense of humor, it’s very difficult.

Do you lift such absurd details from life, or do you invent them?

They’ve all been invented. I don’t take many things from observation; I prefer to create new worlds. Of course, there’s an observation somewhere first, but I don’t think of it as a starting point. I’m more interested in invention and playing—it’s a game that I love to play.

Games, of course, often have different outcomes, and a certain unpredictability. But I wonder, then, what this means for your process of writing the script. Do you have scripted lines?

I don’t have a method. In this case, the writing took me many years. The shooting took us four and a half years. We started in 2018, when we had some money from Chile to shoot for two weeks. Then we spent the following year looking for financing. Once we had almost all of it, we then decided it was time to shoot [again]. This was in March 2020. The lockdown found us in the middle of Córdoba. We stopped for one year and a half, then we shot for two weeks, and then one of the actors had to go to Spain for nine months. That’s why [the film] took us more than four years. During those years, of course, I edited what we shot, and also rewrote the script. So the process was very peculiar: I had an idea and developed it, [then] I wrote the script, but once I started to edit, I rewrote the whole thing, and split it into two parts—one about the investigation and the direct consequences of the robbery, the investigation at the bank, and the suffering of Román, who hides the money but doesn’t know what to do with it; and the second part that’s freer, about travel to Córdoba and encounters with the bohemian group.

My way of writing was very dynamic. The main thing is that I write the scenes that I really want to shoot. I don’t care about recipes for storytelling, or about functionality. If there is anything functional in the story, it probably came during the editing rather than from the writing itself.

Ela Bittencourt is a writer and critic. She publishes regularly in ArtforumFilm Comment, frieze, HyperallergicReverse Shot, and Sight and Sound.