The Delinquents: a bank robbery movie that plays like an existential epic

A dissatisfied Buenos Aires bank teller steals from his workplace and stashes the cash with a colleague while he serves a prison sentence in Rodrigo Moreno’s languid, shape-shifting heist story.

Franco de la Puente as Toni, Laura Paredes as Laura, Germán De Silva as Del Toro, Lalo Rotavería as Isnardi, Iair Said as Barrientos, Mariana Chaud as Marianela, Esteban Bigliardi as Román in The Delinquents (2023)

Some criminals act on impulse, but Morán (Daniel Elías), the protagonist (or is he?) of Rodrigo Moreno’s The Delinquents, is playing the long game. Comfortably ensconced in a job as a bank teller in Buenos Aires, Morán does his job with a quiet efficiency that belies ulterior motives. One day, behind his co-workers’ backs – but in full view of the branch’s surveillance camera – our mild-mannered hero stuffs approximately half a million dollars into a duffel bag and ducks out.

Morán’s impending arrest is a fait accompli: getting caught red-handed is part of the plan. His scheme is to face the music while secretly stashing the money with a trustworthy – but superficially unconnected – co-worker, who’ll promise to keep shtum about the loot in the meantime. Factoring in good behaviour, Morán is looking at three years and change behind bars, which isn’t much when measured against the score of a lifetime; once he’s out, he’ll split the loot with his accomplice, effectively liberating both men from a system that would otherwise keep them on the clock through the best years of their lives.

As a shortcut to an early retirement, Morán’s scheme is ingenious, but its daring is tinged with a desultory sense of realism, as if explicitly acknowledging the impossibility – so familiar from the movies – of a clean getaway. He’s leaving a lot to chance and the fact that his chosen confederate is named Román (Esteban Bigliardi), who is introduced wearing a neck brace that draws attention to his fragility, hints at some kind of fateful symmetry beyond his control. The name game registers immediately as a bit of absurdist embroidery à la Nabokov, or, given the Argentinian setting, Borges; an alternative title for Moreno’s film could be The Garden of Forking Paths. Or maybe The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths.

Certainly, The Delinquents means to be more than a heist picture: running a deliberately distended three hours – with plenty of screen time given over to delays, detours, and drawn-out dissolves – Moreno’s first dramatic feature since Mysterious World in 2011 is structured and paced like an existential epic, complete with a superlatively curated soundtrack of blues, jazz and tango numbers that deepen the sense of drift. The deepest cut, which keeps popping up at crucial moments, has the title ‘Adonde está la libertad’ – “Where is the freedom?” – a question that the film poses on a level of form as well as theme. Although it’s divided into two parts, The Delinquents has a shape-shifting structure which doesn’t so much delineate between the characters and their respective narratives as map them along a similar (and uncanny) continuum. So even though Part One is focused primarily on Morán – whose incarceration is harsher than he expected – it’s also partially preoccupied with Román’s status as an accomplice; and while the second part follows Román on a journey out of the city, it doesn’t exactly leave Morán behind. 

In interviews, Moreno, who at 51 is a generational peer of both Lisandro Alonso and Lucrecia Martel but with a more tenuous sense of festival-circuit traction, has cited the 1949 Argentinian film Hardly a Criminal, directed by Hugo Fregonese en route to Hollywood, as a narrative and conceptual influence. In that film, the gambler hiding his ill-­gotten gains is shocked to find the money gone after he’s been granted parole; supposedly James Mason was so impressed by the film’s hardbitten fatalism that he recruited Fregonese to direct the Mexico-set One Way Street (1950). In adapting the material, Moreno has left behind only the faintest tint of noir; the tone is closer to the magic-realist drift of his countryman Mariano Llinás, but instead of trying to cram in as many storylines as possible, The Delinquents exults in the spaces between plot points. In lieu of narrative incidents, the film offers a dizzying pile-up of visual and verbal cues and clues, including a deadpan doubling of supporting roles in which Morán’s prison-yard rival is played by the same actor as his bank supervisor (Germán de Silva), drawing a parallel between very different kinds of authoritarian nastiness. 

Daniel Elías as Morán and Margarita Molfino as Norma in The Delinquents (2023)

Such two-for-one gambits are all but begging to be decoded along symbolic or sociological lines: ditto the film’s centrepiece sequence, which technically belongs in the second part but functions more as a self-contained idyll. Or maybe a daydream: stumbling through the hills of Córdoba, Román encounters two young women and a male documentary filmmaker whose names are, respectively, Norma (Margarita Molfino), Morna (Cecilia Rainero) and Ramón (Javier Zoro). These anagrammatic doppelgangers are welcoming and seductive; as it turns out, they’re also acquainted with Morán. The significance of this coincidence is never underlined, which of course makes it all the more beguiling. If co-conspirators and ostensible ‘delinquents’ Morán and Román represent two sides of the same tarnished coin, are the additional characters meant to further complicate the question of identity? Is their featured film shoot a meta-commentary on Moreno’s own cinematic practice? Or does their languid, sun-dappled group-hang, rendered by cinematographers Inés Duacastella and Alejo Maglio as a series of fleshy, paradisiacal tableaux, merely oblige us to abandon rational inquiry all together? 

For many directors, questions like these might be gauntlets to be dropped in front – or on top – of the audience. Moreno has a gentler sensibility, however: no matter how clever the movie gets, it never feels like the work of a calculating mastermind. Rather, his gestures towards the uncanny feel more like an olive branch extended, freely and sincerely, on behalf of a more open kind of cinema, one that prizes freedom above all else. (It also helps that certain passages are extremely funny: there’s a deadpan quality to some of the dialogue that suggests a rarefied form of sketch comedy). If you’re able to make peace with The Delinquents’ wry, slow-moving inscrutability – and the possibility that its loose ends will be left dangling in the breeze – the reward is considerable. It gives us the rare experience of watching a movie where it truly feels like anything is possible. 

 ► The Delinquents is in UK cinemas now.