There are movies that grab you by the throat and refuse to let go until the story ends. And there are others that playfully guide you into stories that start off simply enough, then blossom and fold in on themselves several times over, leading to endings that are more like beginnings.
For the past five years, a New Wave of films from Argentina has been specializing in the latter type, telling long, winding, labyrinthine stories inspired by both the French New Wave — especially Jacques Rivette’s serial epic Out 1 — and the work of postmodern Latin American writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar and Roberto Bolaño.
The Bottom Line
Works in mysterious ways.
With mammoth running times and multiple characters, Mariano Llinás’ six-part, 13-hour La Flor (2018) and Laura Citarella’s two-part, six-hour Trenque Lauquen (2022), are two of the best-known examples of the genre. Enigmatic and absorbing, they have found a fanbase at festivals and on specialty streaming sites, providing a welcome arthouse alternative to the straightforward, relentless narratives of contemporary TV series.
More a miniseries than a full-blown television season, writer-director Rodrigo Moreno’s The Delinquents (Los Delincuentes) is the latest feature from Argentina to fit that category. Three hours long and divided into two parts, it starts off as a leisurely, shaggy dog crime story, with what’s probably one of the most laid-back bank robberies in film history. But then it digresses, deepens and complexifies, creating new mysteries out of old ones, and love affairs out of the thin air. Premiering in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar, the intimately cryptic epic is an acquired taste that demands patience, but for those willing to accept its meandering rhythms and puzzle-like structure, it offers many rewards.
Moreno’s previous films, including his prizewinning 2006 drama, El Custodio, were closer to regular features, whereas The Delinquents is a leap into new territory, even if it looks and feels like something made back in the 1960s or 70s. Shot by Alejo Maglio and Ines Duacastella on film — or digital made to resemble film — it has a New Wave-ish aesthetic that favors realism and natural light over anything overtly stylish.
Initially, the plot comes across as deceptively simple. An early discussion in the modest Buenos Aires bank where Morán (Daniel Elias), a schlubby loner who keeps a low profile, has been a long-time employee, concerns the mysteriously matching signatures of two unrelated clients. Were they forged, or is it possible that they’re unintentionally the same? The doubling effect is a theme that will guide the rest of The Delinquents, a two-part movie telling two stories that wind up mimicking each other in increasingly fascinating ways, to the point that they seem almost interchangeable.
Morán’s story, which comes first, has him pulling off a low-key heist of the bank’s vault while the other workers are out of the office or not paying attention. He walks away with $650,000, plus a hefty sum of Argentine pesos, but there are cameras in the vault and everywhere else, so what is he really doing? That evening, he meets up with fellow employee Román (Esteban Bigliardi) — Morán and Román, get it? — and explains his plan: He’ll spend three years in jail for the robbery, after which he’ll live humbly off the proceeds for the rest of his life. That is, if Román agrees to hold the money for him.
The Delinquents is definitely not Money Heist, and Morán has no desire to make it rich. Nor does Román, who seems uncomfortable with the scheme but decides to go along with it anyway. Their goal is to free themselves from the wage-slave existences they lead, where life in the big city is marked by endless routines and dull day jobs. For Morán, better to serve some prison time and be a free man after, while Román only needs to make it past the increased on-the-job scrutiny from a tough bank inspector (Laura Paredes, who starred in both La Flor and Trenque Lauquen) until he’s free, too.
There’s a minimal level of tension in the Buenos Aires-set scenes, shifting between the bank, the prison where Morán serves out his sentence and Román’s humdrum home life. But the film really takes off, changing gears and throwing everything into question, when the latter travels to the countryside in order to hide the small fortune heisted by his colleague, following a trail Morán set for him in the hills outside of Córdoba.
After burying the treasure, Román crosses paths with a local woman named Norma (Margarita Molfino), who lives on a farm along with her sister, Morna (Cecilia Rainero) — yes, more doubling, or more like quadrupling — and quickly steals Román’s heart. The love story that flowers in the middle of The Delinquents is both tender and real, providing some of its most lyrical sequences. Suddenly it feels like we’re watching a different movie, and, like the best work of Borges et al, one story opens onto another, and another.
Moreno uses Román’s affair with Norma to toss in references to both Robert Bresson’s L’Argent, which the two go to see at the movies, and an LP of the classic Argentine rock band Pappo’s Blues. It may seem like he’s done so for the heck of it, but then we realize that Bresson’s movie is about money changing hands from one person to another, transforming several lives in the process, while the rock record changes hands several times as well.
By the time Morán gets out of prison after yet more digressions, including a mesmerizing reading of Ricardo Zelarayán’s poem “The Great Salt Flats,” he’s ready for the life he set up during the opening heist. But is it still his life to live, or is Román now living it for him? Whatever we’ve witnessed beforehand falls into place, including things that seem to have happened twice, and The Delinquents takes on additional layers of meaning while never becoming conclusive. It’s a film where nothing is left to chance, and yet anything seems possible.