Near the halfway point of The Delinquents, a funny, existential epic from Argentina, a banker dips into an arthouse cinema. Though almost all the seats are free he can’t decide which one to choose. What’s the point of all those options, the film asks, if you’re always left wanting more? In another moment the elder statesman of a prison yard explains that the only advantage a cellmate holds over those outside is having all the time in the world to think. (What’s the point of freedom itself if you’re a slave to the algorithm?) “There wasn’t more freedom,” another man explains, reminiscing about an objectively worse era in Argentinian history, “but you could smoke anywhere.”
One of the very best films from this year’s Un Certain Regard, The Delinquents, the seventh feature from Argentine director Rodrigo Moreno, is set in motion with a delicious bit of game theory. A banker, Morán (Daniel Eliás), decides to steal exactly twice the amount of money he would make if he were to work until retirement. He offers half to his colleague, Román (Esteban Bigliardi), in return for holding the cash and keeping his mouth shut. Morán has come to the conclusion that it would be better to blow three years in jail than to work for another 25. Román cautiously agrees, stashing the sports bag in his girlfriend’s apartment. As promised, Morán turns himself in and begins doing the time.
Playing out over 189 forgivably indulgent minutes, Moreno allows that crime to simmer in the background as he fleshes out his key players and their evolving motivations. The focus switches back and forth between Morán and Román’s perspectives and occasionally back and forth in time. Though rarely seen, the bag of money––one of the most potent objects in all of cinema––becomes both their source of salvation and a ticking time bomb; let’s call it Schrödinger’s cash. Growing uneasy in work, Román decides to stash the money outside Buenos Aires. Taking Morán’s advice, he hides it in Córdoba, in a spot that Morán found before turning himself in. It’s here Román meets a woman, Norma (Margarita Molfino), and falls for her. We later find out that Morán also got close to her. Why all the overlap, you might be thinking, and why all the anagrams? Moreno seasons his film with as many clues as false flags. “Some people have the same signature,” a bank worker says at the beginning, to which their colleague responds, “some people have the same lives.”
In each of those lives the film’s central question about the nature and cost of freedom is finely sketched out. The men Morán encounters in prison enjoy a freedom of time and thought that is alien to him at first; while in Córdoba, both men discover a freedom beyond the reach of their urban, consumerist lives. The money, of course, promises another kind of freedom entirely. These ideas are drip-fed over The Delinquents‘ leisurely runtime, and thanks to Moreno’s patient, wistful approach, there is no shortage of time for them to germinate. The nearly dialogue-free opening, when Morán commits his white-collar sin, is given almost 20 minutes alone. Román’s hike to the hiding place, where he first encounters Norma and gets caught in the rain, is longer still. (There is also a lengthy section with a film team that I suspect could’ve been cut.) Shot by Alejo Maglio with some lovely crossfades and rather effective screen wipes, the film luxuriates in the area’s rugged landscape and convincingly makes its case without cheap sentiment––on more than one occasion I began to question some of my own life choices.
It’s a cool film and never less than interesting, even as it meanders a bit too sleepily toward its final denouement. Eliás is great in the role, both the hero and the foil, going from supine bank stooge to tanned horse-rider to wild-eyed convict with plenty of good humor. And I absolutely loved the quiet, lonely pleasures of his last days of freedom: hiking through a forest, kicking a football around at dusk, and chilling on a bench with an ice cream in double denim. For a moment I was reminded of the mother (played by Maren Eggert) in Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But.. and how she walked away from the anxieties of the city to proudly embrace a life of YOLO. We are only given one, after all.
The Delinquents premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival.