The Delinquents is the sort of pleasurable movie that never feels rushed, masterfully carrying a viewer along a variety of detours over its three-plus hour runtime. It is languid yet never inert. It deftly moves between genres including comedy, romance, and Western. A heist picture at its core, with that comes the expected tense moments—moments that never play as out of place within the pacing of the rest of the film. It’s a remarkable achievement from Argentine filmmaker Rodrigo Moreno.
The Un Certain Regard highlight begins with the two unexpected criminals at the center of this heist: Principled, unassuming Morán (Daniel Elías) has calculated the exact sum he would earn if he worked at this regional bank until retirement, multiplying that tally by two on an old school calculator. The theft is an expedited retirement plan for Morán: he’s determined a few years in actual prison is far more appealing than the 20+ awaiting him in the metaphorical prison of the bank. Co-worker Román (Esteban Bigliardi) is roped into Morán’s plan and from there, the two embark on separate journeys with intertwined fates. This includes their incidental romancing of the same woman, Norma (Margarita Molfino).
With the film now in limited release from MUBI, I spoke with Moreno over Zoom about subverting audience expectations for genre, turning down a Berlinale invitation to submit an early cut, New Argentine Cinema labels, and the problem with contemporary music scores.
The Film Stage: Take me into the process of making this film. I understand it was written over a long period of time. Other writer-directors must be jealous of your ability to make this type of movie––a languidly paced three-hour heist movie––in this manner.
Rodrigo Moreno: Regarding other filmmakers and jealousy, the only thing I have to tell them is: don’t worry about taking risks. Most contemporary films have very little risk in their decisions, and you feel it. Everything is so standardized, so equalized. Don’t be afraid––that’s another thing to tell them. Don’t be afraid of failure, of making mistakes. Don’t be afraid of uncertainty. When I direct a film, I don’t know if the film will work in the right way. I don’t know if all the elements that I put inside the film will finally match, and at the end of the day, that uncertainty makes the strength of the film. Regarding length, I don’t know what to say––it’s the time I needed to tell this story. It’s just that. My previous films don’t last more than two hours; maybe even less than that. But in this case it’s the time I needed to tell this story, because it’s a complex story that needed to be told in different parts, coming across different moods as well.
With that uncertainty, is there a moment where it clears up and you’re like “OK, we have a movie.” If so, when did it clear up for you on The Delinquents?
The editing took a long time to finish. I remember receiving an invitation for Berlinale. They wanted to see a rough cut and I said, “I don’t have it. The film’s not finished and I don’t know what kind of film I have in my hands.” I have an old relationship with them, so they said “Don’t worry, Rodrigo. It’s a rough cut, we understand. But send it to us and trust us. We will know how to appreciate it.” I was so terrified: “Please don’t insist.” They said “OK, you have until December something. That’s our deadline. Send it before that date.” That day I remember well. I took the courage of giving them a call to say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t show you anything. I’m not prepared, and the film is not ready.” They were very upset, but that night I couldn’t sleep and I went to my desk, turned on the computer, and started editing in a crazy trip. And I found the final structure. Once I found that structure, I started working with the relief of: OK, now I got it.
There were times when you would be writing on set an hour before shooting. Were you writing brand-new scenes? Were you just tweaking dialogue? How do you work with your team to bring this new stuff in?
Whole new dialogues, but new scenes also.
Any specific examples of scenes from The Delinquents that were written on the day of?
There’s a moment when Román is interrogated by Del Toro and Laura, and there’s the squeaky noise from the chair. I wrote that scene half an hour before shooting. I wrote new elements and I also used some elements that were in the script before. Or in the bank when Del Toro says, “I’ve been working in the bank for 55 years,” and then the security guards asks him, “How old are you?” That was new too. I don’t like actors to improvise, but I like to do it myself.
I love both of those scenes. In the interrogation scene you see a new side of Román, where he stands up for himself and gives this authority figure a bit of attitude. You like casting actors that carry a natural comedic sensibility. What’s your process working with these actors in getting all these different personalities to work together to stage a comedic scene?
When I search for actors, I don’t think of their acting abilities. I think of them more as how they are as a person, their intelligence. Many times I use non-professional actors. Román is just a friend of mine. So I come out with something similar to documentary in my work with actors. The rehearsals are not so much to review a scene, but we want to find a common language so that I can understand them and they can understand me, so they can read me and know where I come from.
The music comes in at very specific moments over the course of the runtime and adds to this laid-back feeling to the whole endeavor.
When I edit a film, I usually play music that I download from YouTube. I just use it to have a rhythm while I’m editing, but then I don’t use it in the film. In The Delinquents, the music has to do with classic cinema, not only the American film noir, but also French films from the ’60s––like Melville or Chabrol. There was something interesting there with that music. I decided to get rights and not call a composer. Then there is other music that I found that was useful: classical music and also Astor Piazzolla plays at the beginning, and “Adonde Está la Libertad” by Pappo’s Blues plays when they’re all handing this record from one to another.
I don’t like the type of music contemporary cinema has today. I find it so predictable. Everything sounds the same. You have a Harry Potter score and an Avatar score and it sounds exactly the same. I don’t like that. That’s why I decided not to work with an original score.
Are there characteristics of yourself that you see in Román and Morán? How’d you balance it so that the film isn’t too harsh on either character? One might be a little idealistic and the other might be a little too defeatist and perhaps willing to work a dead-end job forever.
I realized once I finished the film that Morán and Román have the same initials as my name. That was something totally unconscious on my side. Why did I use those names with my own initials? Of course I’m speaking through them, although they are different characters with different ways of managing their destinies. In that sense, Morán is maybe more brave––someone who makes a big decision. Román is trapped by this decision; he is blackmailed by Morán. He’s weak. He’s also delivered to the destiny he has as a bank employee. But he reaches the same revelation as Morán and finally quits his job and tells that to his girlfriend three-and-a-half years later. So the film also shows how Román realizes about his work conditions and has that revelation Morán has in the beginning.
But there’s another thing that I was interested in, which has to do with the replication, because they finally have the same destiny. They meet the same girl. They are attached to this bag full of money. They discover non-productive time, but their processes are organized in a different order. It’s something that has to do with the anagrams, because an anagram has a different meaning with the same letters organized in a different way. But that’s something I realized later after finishing the film, like many things. But the way of managing this balance between one story and the other one, Morán and Román, it was a funny way of storytelling in the edit: when I was getting bored of one story I switched to the other. It was like a game of going in and going out from each character.
The film is a fable and to a certain extent with any narrative you have to train the audience in how to view it. Was there anything you did early on to show to the audience that this story is a fable that’s not quite rooted in realism?
There are a couple of things about the audience. Usually you deposit expectations in the audience. In this case, it could be expectations of cheating or betrayal or that they get caught. And then this film doesn’t say that this is going to happen and it actually doesn’t happen. Whenever you think anything like that is going to happen, I offer an exit that is comic or luminous, and it goes to unthinkable places. So more than thinking about realism or fables, I was thinking about all that. Realism is a corset that cuts the wings of imagination.
How do you feel about labels? Are they helpful or reductive? If somebody said this movie has Marxist sensibilities, is that something that excites you? Similarly, do you like being lumped in with the New Argentine Cinema or do you feel like that label restricts how people might view your work in relation to the rest of the artists in that loose collective?
Labels are restrictive. When you go to a festival, you usually have to fill a form about genre. And what could I say about this film? Could I say it’s a heist movie? Well, I don’t know. Or maybe a comedy, or maybe an existential movie, or maybe an experimental movie, or maybe a love movie. So labels lead to prejudice.
About the New Argentine Cinema: well, that’s not more complex. I’m not sure. I think what used to be called the New Argentine Cinema was the cinema made at the beginning of the 21st-century with Lucrecia Martel and so on. Now Argentine movies go to many different places. The cinema from Argentina is very diverse. There was just released a horror movie [When Evil Lurks] from Argentina in the United States in more than 600 screenings. Apparently it’s going to be very successful. Argentinian filmmakers are very different. I don’t know if I belong to any group. We just live in the same city. I do a magazine about cinema annually and we talk about movies there, different filmmakers. Of course, some of these conversations translate to our movies. But the sense of community is not aesthetic-driven. It’s more about trying to survive, getting funds, trying to protect ourselves from economical difficulties. This kind of community is what we share.
The Delinquents is now in theaters.