Review: 'The Delinquents,' a superb existential heist-comedy, might just steal your heart

In one of the many playful moments in “The Delinquents,” a wonderfully uncategorizable new movie from Argentina, a man named Morán (Daniel Elías) reaches for a cigarette and a lighter. As he does this, the screen gradually splits in two, revealing another man, Román (Esteban Bigliardi), performing the same gesture. Morán is in a prison cell; Román is not, although he, in his own way, can feel the walls closing in. The timing of the gag is blink-and-you-miss-it exquisite: As they extend their arms, they almost seem to bump fists at the center of the frame, an accidental gesture of solidarity between two men whose fates have become as closely bound as their anagrammatic first names.

Sometime later, the Argentine writer-director Rodrigo Moreno repeats that split-screen flourish, now with a third character joining Morán and Román in the frame. (Her name is — wait for it — Norma.) Someone has been added, but much, by this point, has also been taken away. One way to approach “The Delinquents” is as a lesson in what we might call applied cine-mathematics: a game of doublings and substitutions played in a rigorous yet whimsical key. None of us, Moreno seems to be saying, is a truly unknown quantity. Even Morán and Román, determined to cast off conformity and live life on their own terms, have a hard time escaping what feel like immutable, existential laws.

Genre, too, can be something of a prison. But “The Delinquents,” some of which pointedly takes place behind bars, delights in planting itself in one narrative trap after another and then burrowing its way out. It begins with one of the more desultory heist sequences in recent movies: Morán, a bearded, balding clerk at a Buenos Aires bank, slips into the vault one day and leaves with a duffel bag full of cash. He steals only $650,000, roughly the amount that he and Román, the colleague he blackmails into helping him, would earn if they worked at the bank for another 25 years. Morán’s plan is to turn himself in and go to jail for 3 1/2 years (taking good behavior into account), then divide up the money, which Román will look after in the meantime. Three-and-a-half years, Morán reasons, is a small price to pay for super-early retirement.

But pulling off a bank job to escape a bank job turns out to be a not-so-simple plan. In prison, Morán is forced to pay protection money to a rough older inmate; he’s played by Germán de Silva, who, in a nicely deadpan touch, also plays the bank director under whom Román continues to toil. (In or out of jail, there’s no escaping managerial tyranny.) Even as he struggles to hide the dough from his music-teacher girlfriend, Román comes under suspicion at work of being Morán’s accomplice, in scenes that briefly transform the movie into a poker-faced office comedy. The hilariously hard-headed accountant investigating the crime is played by Laura Paredes, who appeared in earlier sprawling multipart Argentine epics like Mariano Llinás’ “La Flor” and Laura Citarella’s “Trenque Lauquen.”

“The Delinquents” is shorter and less segmented than those works; it runs a capacious, absorbing three hours and change, and is divided into just two parts. The second act kicks in when Román heads into the countryside, looking for a safe place to bury the money. There, he has a life-altering encounter with three locals, including the aforementioned Norma (Margarita Molfino), with whom he soon falls in love. Even as the complications begin to multiply, the narrative rhythms slow to a pleasurable glide, recalibrated in part by the sounds of rushing water and the pull of the outdoor scenery. What began as a shaggily low-stakes heist thriller before morphing into a grotty prison movie has now become an idyllic, sun-drenched landscape epic.

In some of these scenes, the characters shrink in physical stature, dwarfed in scenic wide shots composed by the co-cinematographers Alejo Maglio and Inés Duacastella. But if anything, Román stands taller, breathes deeper and looks more alive in these moments — and so does Morán, who, through another clever structural gambit, also gets his well-earned moment in the sun. But if this tantalizing glimpse of a purer agrarian existence opens up worlds of possibility, Moreno is up to something less simplistic and more interesting than a demonization of town and a romanticization of country. A much-needed rural retreat brings its own loneliness and uncertainty. And the liberation that Morán seeks — a vision of freedom that he passes on, along with that stolen cash, to Román — exacts deeper costs, and raises more questions, than either man expected.

Forever reinventing itself and meandering away from predictable paths, “The Delinquents” embodies, formally and dramatically, the spirit of its characters’ rebellion. Its adventurousness owes something to French cinema, from Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard to, most explicitly, Robert Bresson, whose “L’Argent,” a much darker drama of crime and punishment, figures into the story at one key juncture. The reference to “L’Argent” may be the cleverest bit of wordplay in a movie that is also thoroughly steeped in Argentine art, from its transporting use of Astor Piazzolla’s “Symphony for Oboe” to its narrative origins in Hugo Fregonese’s 1949 film, “Hardly a Criminal,” which Moreno has cited as a key influence. Among other Argentine cultural touchstones, an album by the rock band Pappo’s Blues becomes a key plot device, while a reading of Ricard Zelarayán’s poem “The Great Salt Flats” provides the story with its most sublime interlude.

What happens in that scene looks simple — a man reads the poem aloud, his listeners sit transfixed, the camera pans skyward and then returns to earth — but in the space of those few moments, a small eternity passes and our own understanding of these characters and their lives is subtly, thrillingly realigned. Nothing that happens from that point onward resolves itself in straightforward fashion, whether it’s the fate of the money, the movie’s two parallel love stories or the possibility of a reunion between Morán and Román — if they even are distinct individuals by that point, or if they’ve somehow merged into a single identity.

The lead actors aren’t ones to give the game away, though it’s a pleasure to scan their faces for clues. You couldn’t confuse one for the other, and yet there is, in Bigliardi’s air of comic perplexity and Elías’ sad-sack fatigue, a sense of shared experience that requires no trick of the camera to make itself felt. From unsettled beginning to wondrously open-hearted finale, “The Delinquents” is wise enough not to offer clear or easy answers, beyond its certainty that getting lost is the only way to be found.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.