Rodrigo Moreno’sThe Delinquents has taken a while to reach us. Its premiere was at Cannes in May 2023. The fate of the film imitates, in a way, its main theme. It’s about getting lost, or not getting lost enough. It has been described as a heist movie and a comedy. These labels are appropriate only if every bank robbery is a heist, and if we call films comedies when we can’t think of another word to describe them.

The Delinquents is curiously absorbing and bewildering, and one formula for what it seeks to show us would be the poverty of difference. Some differences are real, the suggestion is, but many are illusory and some are non-existent. The film repeatedly proposes that no matter how great the gaps are supposed to be between places or people or conditions or objects, they will keep collapsing into a dizzying similarity, if not duplication. ‘Things here are not the way they are outside,’ one character says. He is speaking in a prison. But he is also speaking as a gang boss inside the institution, about to claim from a fellow inmate a large monthly sum for protection. Sound familiar? The familiarity is enhanced by the fact that the actor in this role (Germán de Silva) also plays a bank manager in the world outside. I didn’t realise this until I looked up the cast list, but a certain similarity between the two characters had already given an odd touch to the scene.

The film opens with a sort of fable about difference, or its absence. A woman visiting de Silva’s bank is not allowed to deposit a cheque because her signature is identical to one attached to another customer’s account. We see photocopies of the separate but indistinguishable signatures. The bank officials don’t know what to do but treat the mystery as if it was all in a day’s work and offer the woman a few platitudes. ‘There are people who have the same handwriting … the same voice … the same life.’ We never learn whether the woman gets her cash, or indeed anything else about her, and it slowly dawns on us that this story is not part of the film’s plot, just an emblem of its theme.

We don’t have to look far for other examples. One man (Daniel Elías) is called Morán, another is called Román (Esteban Bigliardi). They both have affairs with a woman called Norma (Margarita Molfino), unless we are confusing her with her sister Morna (Cecilia Rainero). They also meet up with a man called Ramón (Javier Zoro Sutton). There are two split-screen scenes that invite comparison between the lives of Morán and Román, and perhaps indicate a real difference, but all we see is that both men are smoking. What I have just called the film’s plot is scarcely that. It is a series of invitations to storylines that flicker and fade, reminders that we are often a bit too practical in our need to know what happens. Or too limited in our idea of what counts as happening. If we are interested in questions of immediate practical concern, the film gives us plenty of details but no pacifying answers. This is especially true of the lyrical end of the movie, but let’s look at some earlier moments first.

The film is divided into two parts. The first is set in Buenos Aires and is almost entirely urban. It ends, however, on a rocky hillside far away from the city, in the province of Córdoba. The second part begins in the same place, and mostly stays there, with a quick trip back to town. This structure suggests a move from modes of confinement to some sort of freedom, and the film does partly point in this direction. The fact that Ramón is trying to film the sights and sounds of nature as they are is a clue, but he is a minor character and he hasn’t robbed a bank.

The elusiveness of the film’s story contrasts with and comments on the neatness of Morán’s plan for his and Román’s life. He has stolen $650,000 dollars in cash from the bank where he works. He arrived at this figure by calculating what two employees at the bank would make if they stayed there for 25 years. He is going to (and does) turn himself in and confess to his crime. He will be sentenced to six years in jail, reducible to three and a half for good behaviour. Meanwhile his initially unwilling collaborator, Román, will sit on the money. After that they will split it and live happily ever after.

At this point Morán doesn’t know what happens in prisons, even when some behaviour is classified as good. This failure of neatness doesn’t matter though. Morán pays his protection money, serves his time, reads a lot of poetry, and leaves the prison. What matters is Morán’s activity in the brief period between his theft and turning himself in. He went to the countryside, met Morna, Norma and Ramón, and learned how he wanted to live when he got out of prison. While inside he instructs Román, who is getting more and more desperate as he thinks he is going to be discovered holding the money, to go and bury the notes under a large rock in the landscape where part one of the film ends. As if by accident Román meets the trio as he leaves the mountain, spends some time with them, and begins his affair with Norma. She comes to Buenos Aires to see him and that’s where we get the urban interval in part two.

Román doesn’t know about Morán’s affair with Norma. She is, as it were, the single signature for two accounts. This is not an immediate problem until Norma offers him as a gift the same LP (Rappo’s Blues) that Morán has offered him a while ago. Román has delivered to Norma a letter from his still imprisoned friend, and he now makes out the full story, that he is the second person to find his way into the same affection, the same romantic dream. Another split screen, so to speak, although only one half is in view. Román feels he has to tell Norma about the money and the whole scheme. She was leaving Buenos Aires anyway but is now disgusted with both of them. ‘You’re pathetic and your friend is mad,’ she says. And despite Román’s protests – he has left everything for her – she abandons him and the film.

The two men are exactly where they planned to be, except that Morán’s idyll no longer exists, any more than Román’s affair does. What do they do? They take to the country, and we follow their travels almost in slow motion. Román camps out where the money is hidden, waiting for what? Morán discovers that the trio’s house is empty but the horse he used to ride is still there and he borrows it. He rides into the mountains. Are these the same mountains? Is he going to meet Román, and will they share the money? Will they fight, get greedy? Is Morán going in another direction, does he perhaps now believe that the money doesn’t matter? That it was a trigger but not a resource? These speculations, and others we may think of later, could go on for ever. But the film doesn’t. It ends on a mountain.

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