Objects of Desire: Rodrigo Moreno on “The Delinquents”

By Jordan Cronk

“The problem is that it then goes off on tangents and the plot becomes secondary.”—A Mysterious World

Until recently a somewhat forgotten figure of the New Argentine Cinema, director Rodrigo Moreno has, with The Delinquents, asserted himself as perhaps that movement’s most underestimated talent. Moreno’s first narrative film in nine years is several times more ambitious than anything the 51-year-old filmmaker has yet ventured, a work as sprawling and serpentine as his previous features were compact and unassuming. Just as telling, it’s a grand embrace of fiction following what seemed to be a slow, perhaps unconscious retreat from narrative storytelling. 

The director’s two most recent features, the docu-fiction hybrid Reimon (2012) and the observational documentary A Provincial City (2017), marked a distinct tonal shift in Moreno’s work, away from both the sullen existentialism of his solo debut El custodio (2005) and the ironic detachment of A Mysterious World (2011)—two films very much in keeping with prevailing art-cinema trends of the time—and closer to the kind of modest, empathetic portraiture that’s become de rigueur on the non-fiction festival circuit. It’s easy and not entirely inapt, then, to consider a work of such bold, unabashedly cinematic, and purely pleasurable wide-canvas storytelling as The Delinquents—a film that traffics in a little bit of everything Moreno’s done in the past, while nodding to any number of classic and contemporary influences along the way—as something of a re-debut. Not only is it the freshest and most accomplished work of Moreno’s career, it’s also carried aloft at every moment with the joie de vivre of a filmmaker bursting with energy and ideas.

The Delinquents is at once a knowing expansion of the central premise of Hugo Fregonese’s 1949 Argentine noir classic Hardly a Criminal—about a lowly insurance clerk who hatches an embezzlement scam he knows can land him a maximum of seven years in prison, which he proudly serves before returning to retrieve the stashed payload—and a rewiring of its themes of greed and working-class disenchantment. Forging a continuum between eras and traditions by dismantling the codes and signifiers that might otherwise tie its story to a specific period or set of expectations, The Delinquents is perhaps the most languorous, anachronistic heist movie ever made—a genre film in love with the devices and archetypes of genre, but uninterested in the kind of dramatic, moralistic storytelling that typifies your average three-act crime film (which is an admittedly inadequate term for a movie that, by the end, could just as accurately be called a Western).

Divided into two parts and running 189 minutes, The Delinquents rambles where other films of its kind dispense with pleasantries and proceed to ratchet up the tension. Moreno commences the film with a wordless, city symphony–like sequence of downtown Buenos Aires architecture that, after several minutes of oboe music composed by Astor Piazzolla, eventually arrives at a ’70s-stylized bank where Morán (Daniel Elías) and Román (Esteban Bigliardi) work as tellers. One day, while depositing a cartful of cash in the vault, Morán absconds with $650,000—a sum, he tells Román later than evening when confronting him with details of the crime in a busy restaurant, equivalent to the combined salary they would earn from now until retirement. With this shaky moral justification in place, Morán’s plan is simply to confess to the crime, serve the sentence, and then split the money with Román, who will hide it until Morán is released. Which is all well and good, except Román, left with little choice but to agree to the arrangement, can’t shake the guilt and, under suspicion due to his frequent visits to Morán in prison, takes his accomplice’s advice and stows the cash under a giant boulder in the countryside.

Where this first chapter takes place mostly indoors—primarily in the bank, as the branch manager (Germán de Silva, who, in a juicy dual role, also plays a gang leader in the prison scenes) and an outside CPA (Laura Paredes) investigate the crime and put pressure on Román to fess up—the second half moves outside and ushers in an attendant shift in tone, from the relatively brisk and cloistered to the decidedly carefree and unbound. It’s here, too, that the film evolves from a straightforward if evocative neo-noir into an existential inquiry into the notion of freedom and the nature of time. In a transcendent 20-minute interlude, part two opens upon a literal oasis, as Román crosses paths with three strangers—filmmakers, we later learn—at a lake when leaving his hilltop hideaway. As they eat, swim, and play word games, idle chitchat turns into quasi-philosophical musings on memory and storytelling. “Was it a song, a riddle, or a story?” Román asks himself when recalling a half-remembered anecdote he once heard. “Or was it a game?” 

That the same might be asked of The Delinquents is part of the fun, particularly in these moments when the plot either falls away or shifts gears so completely that the initial premise can itself feel like a vague memory. This applies most especially during an extended flashback that upends our understanding of Román’s relationship with one of these individuals, Norma (Margarita Molfino), who spends much of the film’s second half involved in a romance with Román and, we later learn, had a similar fling with Morán before he went to jail.

Linked by more than just their anagrammatic names, Román and Morán are each seeking the kind of freedom that Norma represents—namely, freedom from the strictures of the workaday grind and all the social, economic, and romantic responsibilities that come with being an upwardly mobile individual in a capitalist society. It’s little wonder that, on not one but two occasions, Román escapes to the cinema to see Bresson’s L’argent (1983), or that the corporate routines depicted in the early stages of the film eventually give way to poetry reading, horseback riding, and record-playing—one of the film’s key motifs involves the Pappo’s Blues song “Adonde Está la Libertad,” from the Argentine rock band’s 1971 self-titled album, a copy of which is passed between the characters like a talisman. 

Here, as throughout, it’s easy to see where Moreno’s interests and sympathies lie, not only ethically but also artistically; indeed, few recent films have so openly acknowledged their influences. In that sense, The Delinquents, despite its lengthy gestation, fits in nicely with both the current crop of Argentine cinema—particularly the novelistic epics produced by El Pampero Cine, such as Laura Citarella’s Trenque Lauquen (2022) and Mariano Llinás’ La Flor (2018), both of which prominently feature Delinquents co-star Paredes—and the kind of fabulist-minded fare that has injected contemporary art cinema with a welcome dose of levity and wide-eyed possibility. (If the title What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? hadn’t already been claimed by Alexandre Koberidze, it could work comfortably here.) Unlike a lot of films that bring to mind as many, if not more, outside sources as they do moments from their maker’s own catalogue, Moreno’s movie bears no anxiety of influence, and is all the more original for it. Like any good rabbit hole, it’s worth getting lost in. 

Cinema Scope: It’s been a number of years since you’ve worked so directly in fiction; in fact, your films had slowly been moving closer to non-fiction. What prompted this return to narrative cinema?

Rodrigo Moreno: I consider myself a director of fiction films. Even though my last film, A Provincial City, was a strict documentary, and the one before that, Reimon, was an experimental fiction starring a non-professional actress, I don’t think of the new film as a return to fiction. To me, I’m always singing the same old song, just with different instruments. Or, to use another analogy, those earlier films are like nudes, and in the case of The Delinquents I bought some clothes, shoes, and hats to dress it up.

A Provincial City, in particular, was important for me when approaching The Delinquents, because it’s about daily life and leisure in a small town. If I hadn’t shot those scenes of leisure in A Provincial City, then the second half of The Delinquents would have been more difficult for me to imagine. Because of that film, I felt total surety and a kind of freedom from the mandates of narrative to develop similar scenes of leisure in The Delinquents. And, in a similar way, Reimon’s themes of work and play carry over to The Delinquents

Scope: The more languorous and observational passages do have a bit of a non-fiction feel, as does the opening sequence of the city. I’ve read that you approached the film as kind of a portrait of Buenos Aires?

Moreno: When I decide to start on a film, I create my own objects of desire. In this case, one of them was to shoot downtown Buenos Aires, which is where I was born and where I live. For the past 12 years I’ve been working with a friend of mine, a still photographer, on a kind of portrait of the city. Every six months or so we go downtown and shoot various things, to make an archive for the future. It’s all observational, like those early Lumière shorts or those early 20th-century images of the streets and people. That’s something I wanted to bring to The Delinquents, in that I really wanted to capture Buenos Aires. 

But at the same time it’s like cropping the city, because Buenos Aires is changing due to the economic crises, the influx of new immigrants, and because the 21st century is just totally different. Buenos Aires is a pale image of what Argentina was in the past, with those beautiful buildings—the French and Italian architecture. I wanted to capture the Buenos Aires that belonged to me from my childhood. So the first images of the film are of a Buenos Aires that both exists and doesn’t exist anymore. 

Scope: You’ve worked a bit in visual and performing arts in recent years. Did you bring anything from those experiences to your work on The Delinquents?

Moreno: Not so much. My work in visual arts has been like a game. An idea I had to have radio announcers read Karl Marx’s Capital was selected in a visual arts market, and so I put on the performance with the announcers reading Capital over a five-day period. That was when I was preparing Reimon, in which Capital is read at one moment in the film. So that subject was split between film and visual arts, but I’m not sure about any other direct connection. My films are influenced by cinema.

Scope: Speaking of which, tell me a little about the film that inspired The Delinquents’ central premise, Hugo Fregonese’s Hardly a Criminal. How did you first come to learn of it?

Moreno: Many years ago I received a proposal from the producer of my first film to remake Hardly a Criminal. At that point I hadn’t seen the film, so I bought the DVD, and the quality was really awful. It was hard even to understand the dialogue. But it was interesting to me to watch how Fregonese depicts how Morán justifies his robbery. 

The problem I found was that Morán wanted to commit the crime, confess to it, do the sentence, and after that be a millionaire and live a life of luxury. I couldn’t identify with that desire. But on the other hand, the way Fregonese depicts the character is very moral. He’s a criminal, a delinquent; it’s difficult to empathize with him. He’s not nice. So, because I didn’t like the character, I rejected the proposal. But years later, that seed to remake the film, or at least to have a dialogue with that period of Argentine cinema, triggered in me a desire to come back to the project, but to deform it, to adapt it to my sensibilities and bring it closer to my territory. 

My first idea was to split the premise between two characters, to tell of two destinies, or maybe one destiny built into two characters—hence, Román and Morán. Keeping the name Morán is a way of recognizing the earlier film as the origin of this project. Also, the title The Delinquents is a way of preserving the original title of Fregonese’s film, which is Apenas un delincuente, even though it was suggested to me that “The Offenders” would be a more accurate and stronger translation of the characterizations in my script. These references are a reminder of the history and lineage we’re working in, because my generation was very reactive to the history of Argentine cinema. 

When we were coming up at the end of the 20th century, our mindset was to react against any trace of Argentine cinema. We wanted to reinvent Argentine cinema, and we did. But in some sense I think that wasn’t fair, because we can’t negate tradition. Sometimes, reacting against tradition is a way of continuing those traditions. Only Lucrecia Martel assumed that tradition by casting Graciela Borges, an actress from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, known for her work with Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, in La Ciénaga (2001). The rest of us denied that tradition. But now I’m in my fifties, and I think it’s time to look back and try to establish a bridge with our ancestors. And this film is not only a bridge to Hardly a Criminal: there are many gestures to Argentine films of the ’80s that I saw when I was a kid. The music, the architecture—it may not evoke a specific film, but I hope it captures the mood of an era. 

Scope: Were you worried about making such an openly cinephilic and referential film?

Moreno: I have no problem if spectators or critics recognize certain traditions or histories in my film, because sometimes I’m conscious of influences and sometimes I’m not. For example, there’s a scene in the film where Román goes to the countryside, and Norma takes his hand and they start to run through the forest. I was conscious of that scene belonging to Ermanno Olmi’s The Fiances (1963), which is a film I really love. Later, those same characters go to the cinema to see L’argent, another blatant reference. But within the film, seeing a moment from Bresson and this other set of hands hopefully creates a dialogue or a poetic echo between Olmi and Bresson. But otherwise, it’s more of a mood I’m trying to evoke, something more general, rather than anything specific. 

What I take from directors that I love, other than those few obviously stolen moments, is an attitude. There’s a filmmaker I really love, Jacques Rozier, who’s considered a second- or third-tier Nouvelle Vague director. What I love about him is the freedom of his storytelling, the detours he takes to follow characters and feelings. It’s that storytelling attitude that I take from him. Another example is the music I use in the film, which evokes Melville and Chabrol, directors who were recasting film noir ten or 15 years after the fact. Rather than directly reference them, I nod to their influence through the way I use music. 

Scope: I was surprised to learn that the film doesn’t have an original score but rather music from outside sources, namely Astor Piazzolla.

Moreno: At the same time that I like to be hands-on with the editing of my films, I sometimes need to put music to scenes to help find some pace in the cutting. I usually get rid of that music, but it’s helpful to find that rhythm. I’ll insert some music and say, “We’ll use something like this,” but in this case, I fell in love with the “something like this.” 

Other than probably some mainstream directors, who commission music and then edit over the composed score, most filmmakers use pre-existing music as a reference and then take those references to the musician and have them copy those references. I wanted to avoid that. So I went directly to Piazzolla, an Argentine musician who almost always worked with the bandoneon, an accordion that’s the main instrument used in tango. But there’s one piece of his that we found that uses oboe instead of bandoneon, and for me that oboe piece evokes classic cinema, whereas the bandoneon pieces evoke Argentine cinema. Which, again, plays into that dialogue I wanted to establish between my film and Argentine cinema.

Scope: Even though this is your most referential film, I also think it’s your most original, which may be due to the writing. Can you describe the writing process, as it compares to your previous films?

Moreno: I think for the first time I let myself get behind feelings, characters, and situations that maybe aren’t functional in a traditionally structured movie. I try to not ban my impulses while writing. If something makes me laugh, I try to follow the idea to see where it can take me. I always write like this. In this case, since I knew that the motivation for the main character was freedom and free time—free, non-productive time—I knew the storytelling had to be non-productive as well, or else it would have been a strong contradiction. I’m always trying to connect content and film form. I believe the real storytelling is in the form, rather than the topic or the content. I always begin with the form, and then develop the storytelling. In that way, the films are cinematic rather than literary.

Scope: That may ultimately be what separates The Delinquents from other recent Argentine films that it’s frequently been compared to, like Trenque Lauquen or La Flor.

Moreno: When I showed the film in Rome recently it was constantly being compared to Trenque Lauquen, which is understandable: it’s an Argentine film, it’s a recent film, it’s four hours long, and it features many of the same actors. The films are related because of that, but there’s a relevant difference. The films of El Pampero Cine are usually built on two levels: there’s one level that tells the story, and a second level that comments on the story as it’s being told. That generates a kind of distance, and a kind of protection. The story is somehow always protected by this voice—sometimes it’s an actual voiceover, sometimes not, but it’s always supporting the story being told. 

In my case, everything’s in the open air—the story has to defend itself, the scenes have to defend themselves. Neither is a better or worse approach, they’re just different. Alejo Moguillansky told me the other day, after seeing the film, that he felt a dialogue between it and El Pampero. I said, “OK, that’s nice, but I personally don’t think it has much to do with you guys.” My film is built from a place of solitude—it’s very personal, a diary by other means. El Pampero is always working collectively. When watching their work you always feel this collectivity, this communion. Of course, film work is a collective endeavour, and I have my regular collaborators, but at the end of the day I’m alone. I consider myself a lone soldier. 

Scope: Can you talk about developing the tone and rhythm of the film’s two parts, as well as the city/country, indoor/outdoor dichotomy that separates them?

Moreno: I knew from the beginning that I wanted to explore the city/country dynamic, as well as the idea of productive versus non-productive time. But the two-part structure is something that only developed during the editing. It took us over three and a half years to shoot the film, basically the same amount of time it takes Morán to serve his sentence, and I was adding and subtracting scenes as we shot. I was editing that whole time, but it was only after the last day of shooting that we brought in an editor to work on the material. It was during a three-month period of organizing everything that a new structure emerged. I discovered new things in the material to reorganize the storytelling, and it was at this moment that I decided to split the film into two parts.

The main change we made was moving the scene where Morán reveals that he had a love affair with Norma, which originally appeared chronologically in the first half of the film, to the third act. This is something that only happened in the last weeks of the editing. It was just me at home, editing at night, like playing a video game, trying to find the film that I couldn’t find. It was when I decided to move that scene and turn it into a long, exaggerated flashback that I found the film. This allowed the first part to be about money and the second part to be about freedom. But not freedom as an absolute concept: it’s about what you can do with that freedom. You can ride a horse, you can swim in a lake, you can shoot a film, you can spend the day reading poetry. That’s the concept behind the two parts. 

Scope: It’s interesting you mention the editing being like a game, because the film itself can feel like a game at times. One of Román’s lines stood out to me when I rewatched the film: “Was it a song, a riddle, or a story? Or was it a game?”

Moreno: I like playing games with words, and I like filming people playing games. I also like to film people dancing and listening to music. These are all things that recur in my films, and in my life. That scene you mention is for me the nucleus of the film—the heart of the film. When Román tells that story, he says something like, “I don’t know why I’m recalling this if it doesn’t mean anything.” I don’t know why either, but for me the entire three hours of the film are to tell this one line. It’s completely personal, but that’s the film for me. 

Scope: The Delinquents feels for me at times almost like a recapitulation of your work, with a few moments that even directly reference your prior films—most obviously the scene where Román’s girlfriend tell him she needs “some time” apart, just like the opening scene of A Mysterious World. How conscious were you that the film could play productively as a kind of retrospective or tour of your filmography?

Moreno: Like I said, first I create an object of desire, then I let myself go behind that desire. I don’t follow an aesthetic program. So it’s not that it’s important for me to recognize my prior work, it’s not that—it’s joy and desire. It’s totally unconscious when these things occur, these games or these scenes that in the end are similar. But only in the end, see?

Scope: Work is a regular theme in your films. How has your investment in issues of labour or in the ways you depict it changed since your first films, if at all?

Moreno: In some ways certain ideas about work have changed a lot since my early films, and in other ways not so much. But the concept of how work takes over our lives is the same. How work as a central part of our lives hinders our freedom, and the possibility of expanding our minds and souls and expressions.

For me, what’s changed is my way of telling these stories. My first film, El custodio, is very solemn. Now I’m more skeptical, and more free as a filmmaker, which has allowed me to try different concepts and take more chances as a director. What this film allowed me is a certain pleasure in filming scenes of leisure, which is why I mentioned A Provincial City earlier. For me, that film was a turning point in my career. It’s a film I made with total liberty. I only shot things that brought me joy, and made me happy. And that happiness, that bright side of life, is something I was only discovering during those years.

So to answer your question: what hasn’t changed is my idea about work as a central part of our lives, but what has really changed is my relationship to cruelty in storytelling and filmmaking. El custodio is a little bit cruel; A Mysterious World a little less cruel, but there’s still cruelty. With The Delinquents, I’ve abandoned cruelty, gotten rid of it completely. I’m happy to finally offer spectators who are used to receiving cruelty in life, in TV, and in cinema a film with no cruelty at all.

jcronk@cinema-scope.com Cronk Jordan