▶︎ A Cop Movie is coming to Netflix later in 2021.

  • Reviewed from the 2021 Berlinale.

In a festival traditionally known for its thoughtful, socially responsible content, it’s rare that a Berlin jury gives its top prize to a film of kick-in-the-teeth dynamism. The last time that happened was in 2008, when the Golden Bear went to José Padilha’s highly controversial Elite Squad. So it would be quite something if this year the top prize went again to a highly ambivalent police movie – but it could well happen with Alonso Ruizpalacios’s extraordinary, category-busting A Cop Movie (Una película de policías).

Mexican writer-director Ruizpalacios showed himself to be formidably inventive with his acclaimed black-and-white feature Guëros (2014). He confirmed that impression flamboyantly in his 2018 Berlinale entry Museum [Museo], although that super-stylist neo-heist drama missed out on the wider exposure it deserved [read our review]. A Cop Movie, however, will air on Netflix, so it will certainly be seen – and deserves to be talked about, indeed argued over, plenty.

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A Cop Movie is about two Mexico City police officers, Maria Teresa Hernandez Cañas and her male partner (on the force and romantically), known as Montoya. The first two sections show each officer in turn talking about and re-enacting their experience, in a style that appears to be formally somewhat along the lines of Errol Morris’s super-evocative merging of documentary and fiction in The Thin Blue Line. We hear, sometimes see, each of them talking, their voiceover syncing with footage of them on the beat, with occasional sequences that re-enact key incidents in their career – notably a frenzied chase sequence on the street and into a Metro station, shot and choreographed in full-on Lethal Weapon action style. We even get a flashback sequence granting us privileged insight into Montoya’s childhood.

A third section has the two subjects at home, talking frankly about their relationship. You’re reeling at the candour of the duo, and at how utterly game they are in taking part – and then Ruizpalacios dispels the illusion and shows us what we’ve really been watching. The film’s next chapter – listed in the end credits as a separate documentary – is titled, with a Stanislavskian wink, An Actor Prepares, and partly comprises the video diaries of the two actors, Monica Del Carmen and Raul Briones, whom we’ve seen playing cops in the previous episodes.

Teresa and Montoya are real enough, it turns out, and Del Carmen and Briones went through rigorous training in order to play them – from going through police academy boot camp to learning the rhythms of the cops’ recorded testimonies with lip-synch accuracy. What emerges, reading their accounts against those of their subjects, is how much being a police officer is equally about playacting – wearing the uniform, walking the walk, hoping that the public believe the performance, and that you believe it yourself.

This is one of the film’s most revealing sections, not least when the actors question their rigorous preparation they are going through, with no clear sense of what the end result will be; and similarly when Briones, who considers himself something of a bohemian rebel, expresses his unease in playing an authority role.

No less striking are the accounts that the real officers give about corruption, the public’s perception of it and the routine nature of bribery as a social lubricant. Quite what that means in practice is revealed startlingly in an episode towards the end, in which Teresa discovers the price to be paid for playing it the book.

By the end, we can’t be sure exactly how much to believe, or what kind of film we’ve been watching. And it may be that of all the many hybrid films of the last 30 or so years that worry at the limits of truth in documentary, A Cop Movie pushes indeterminacy as far as it can go – or at least, does it with the most exuberantly inventive energy.

Further reading

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