Most of us know the illicit rush of the sick day slyly pulled when you’re not really sick. Oh, that sudden, intoxicating sniff of freedom! It’s perhaps the closest thing that many of us get as adults to the ceaseless adventure we thought, as children, we’d be living. Argentinian writer-director Rodrigo Moreno’s delightful “The Delinquents” knows the feeling too, and over the course of its droll, indefinably strange three hours, it may well persuade you that the crazy thing is not to break from your normal routine. The crazy thing is to ever go back.
Filmmakers have long been attracted to the heist format for the high drama it can generate, but Moreno begins his movie with a bank robbery so banal it’s hard to believe that’s actually what is going on. And yet, at the end of a workday in a basement lock-room, here is balding bank worker Morán, played with a perfectly defeated air of middle-management moral relativism by Daniel Elias, packing wads of notes into a concealed duffel bag. The vault is no gleaming piece of “Mission: Impossible” engineering, but a scuffed, scruffy cell in which the note-counting machine keeps getting stuck mid-riffle.
The clever, poker-faced production and costume design may evoke the synthetic fibers and analog telephones of the 1970s, but the set-dressing refuses to pin the film down to any specific era. It’s an atemporality that is useful for plotting but employed by Moreno mainly, one suspects, as visual shorthand for the worn-out drabness of working-schmo life. That vibe hasn’t changed in decades even if the decor has.
Morán glances into the camera that he knows is recording the theft, and leaves with the money. By tomorrow, the robbery will be discovered and he will be arrested, but this is all part of his plan, which is less a mastermind’s gambit than a simple transaction: three years in prison, he estimates, in return for never having to work thereafter for the rest of his life. All he needs is someone to hide the money — not an outrageous sum, but the precisely calculated cumulative earnings he would have accrued between now and retirement age — while he waits out his sentence. He eventually persuades Román (Esteban Bigliardi), an equally hangdog co-worker in a neck brace, to stash the cash in return for a cut. Morán goes to prison; Román goes back to work.
Neither has quite the easy time they’d hoped. While lovely deep cuts by Astor Piazzolla tango on the soundtrack in counterpoint, Román continues to be suspected of complicity in the theft by his co-workers and a shrewd-eyed investigating bank inspector (Laura Paredes). And he’s starting to get antsy about his hiding place: a cupboard in his house that his music-teacher partner might find. Meanwhile Morán needs cash to buy protection from a fellow inmate (Germán De Silva, who also plays the bank’s director), so the conspirators arrange to dip into the stash, and then to move it to a specific rock on a specific hill in the far-off Córdoba countryside.
On his journey out there, as the characterful photography from co-DPs Alejo Maglio and Ines Duacastella takes a deep, breezy breath after the city’s yeasty staleness, Román meets and falls for a young woman, Norma (Margarita Molfino). She lives a seemingly liberated life in the country with her sister Morna (Cecilia Rainero) and Morna’s filmmaker boyfriend Ramon (Javier Zoro). Yes, all five character names are anagrams of each other. No, it doesn’t much matter, unless you want it to.
As the film’s increasingly offbeat and wonderful second half unfolds, events start to repeat with minor variations, and characters begin to unwittingly echo each other’s gestures and thoughts. Split screens draw parallels between unrelated moments; vast wides are where we find some of the most intimate exchanges. Wherever he might be expected to zig, Moreno zags. When the title “Part Two” appears, which convention dictates should introduce a brand new chapter, it is somehow hilarious that it’s over a blandly continuous shot of Román mid-scramble, halfway up a hillside.
What is so beguiling about Moreno’s approach is that it’s a pretty much perfect example of formally committing to the thematic bit. At each creative juncture, the director selects the path less traveled, the one that leads furthest away from classic structure and formula. Why not do it this way, he seems to be constantly asking. Why be proper when it is so much more joyful to be free? Like its characters, Moreno’s banally surreal, big-little movie eschews the safe old daily grind in favor of the perilous unknown, and so, in a uniquely pleasurable way, reminds us that we too have options: Choose work, or choose the whole wide, weird world instead.