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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Are increasingly longer run-times justified? For 'The...

Screen Grabs: Are increasingly longer run-times justified? For ‘The Delinquents,’ yes

One rather draining thing about this time of year, which invariably sees a glut in the movies for grownups (i.e. non-franchise, non-comic book films) that mostly get withheld until “awards season,” is that those prestige releases just keep getting longer. Is it because production costs (and ticket prices) keep climbing that filmmakers think we want a lengthier bang for their/our buck?

Of course, the issue isn’t whether three hours is inherently “too long,” but whether a movie needs to be that long. I admired much about 3.5-hour Killers of the Flower Moon, yet it would be a better film if the somewhat wayward storytelling had been compacted by an hour or so, into something more tense and cogent. (A nagging side issue: Some viewers have complained of having to sit through a half hour of ads and trailers before this long sit, making you wonder if theater owners grasp how such experiences reduce return visits.) Opening next week, one pleasing but slender character comedy from an acclaimed director somehow requires 135 minutes to unfold. At least Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, arriving later in November, promises the epic scale to justify its hefty (albeit not Scorsese-hefty) running time.

Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that a “small” movie can gracefully occupy a considerable chunk of time, too, without need of period setting or proverbial cast of thousands. (Admittedly, these days any such crowd scene would be mostly CGI—real people are apparently expensive.) One example is Rodrigo Moreno’s Argentine The Delinquents, which opens at the Roxie this Fri/27. It’s being promoted as a “heist film,” which is sort of true… to a point. But by the end of its nearly 190 minutes, you’re less sure than ever just how to classify a somewhat mystifying, deadpan shaggy dog story roughly comparable to the playful screen enigmas once crafted by Jacques Rivette and Raoul Ruiz.

The opening provides unusually detailed focus on the routine mechanizations of daily cash handling at a Buenos Aires bank where Moran (Daniel Elias) is a trusted longtime employee. Yet this passage, and the milquetoast man himself, turn out to share a hidden purpose: It’s shown us exactly how he might get away with stealing enough currency (US dollars, as it turns out) to fund his escape from the corporate grind. His goals are so humble, he’s only purloined enough to match the salary he would have drawn if he’d stayed here slogging for another quarter-century.

Moran knows, however, that he will soon be found out. Ergo he tells an even-more-trusted fellow milquetoast employee, teller Roman (Esteban Bigliardi), what he did—offering to evenly split the $650,000 after 3.5 years, the length of time Moran expects to languish in jail. Roman must secret that loot in the meantime, telling no one about it and spending not a cent. He’s appalled by the very idea, then highly nervous about accepting. But his colleague more or less corners him into it.

All goes according to plan, at first. Still, Roman is kept in a state of constant anxiety over this forced transgression, which impacts relations with his live-in girlfriend (Mariana Chaud). At the bank, his boss (German De Silva) blames everyone—save himself, of course—for the theft, creating a toxic workplace worsened by the arrival of an insurance company investigator (Laura Paredes) who treats everyone as a criminal suspect. Meanwhile Moran has his own problems, having not anticipated his prison stint would encompass intimidation from a convict boss (also played by De Silva) who suspects the convicted-robber newbie has stashed funds, and demands a cut for protection from his own in-house goons.

To that end, at one point Moran must ask Roman to deliver some moolah to a remote countryside location. After doing so at the film’s midpoint, he immediately meets some very attractive people picnicking nearby, who insist that he join their sylvan idyll. Soon Roman is involved with gorgeous young Norma (Margarita Molfino), accepted into the boho society of her sister Morna (Cecilia Rainero) and the latter’s boyfriend (Ramon Zoro). You well might ask: Why are all these names anagrams of each other? Why do so many of the characters seem to have “twins,” in narrative if not biological terms? Just what is going on here, and are we even meant to know?

As The Delinquents (a title that doesn’t make any conventional sense, either) goes on, it becomes increasingly unpinnable to any particular genre or tone, without growing rudderless. The wry intrigue of ordinary people taking extraordinary, illegal chances eventually turns towards a gently comedic, sensuous lyricism, which in turn evolves into a parting haze of existential WTF—yet somehow it all flows, as charming as it is inscrutable. The answers Moreno withholds might irk more if his film wasn’t frequently so pleasant to look at, let alone to hear: Whether it’s using original music by Fabio Massimo Capogrosso and Francesco Di Giacomo or vintage compositions by Astor Piazzolla, Bach, Poulenc, et al., the soundtrack always heightens the film’s spectral unpredictability. These 3+ hours don’t exactly pass quickly, but rather like a dream in which time ceases to matter, and waking is a bit of a letdown.

Other new films of interest:

The Persian Version

The kind of leisurely pursuit of an intellectual-philosophical semi-abstract Moreno indulges in couldn’t be further from the means or message of writer-director Maryam Keshavarz’s first feature, which won an audience award at Sundance this year. From the first sequence here—in which our heroine attends a costume party in glittery burkini (with boogie board), then has a one-night stand with a man in drag, all to Wet Leg’s “Chaise Lounge”—The Persian Version is frantic to both please and be one of the Cool Kids. Between reaction-shot freeze frames, people speaking to the camera, and random stylistic jumps from sitcom to music video to melodrama, It’s showy in ways that may delight, or grate, or both at once.

Leila (Layla Mohammadi) is a determined nonconformist whose status as the sole female amongst eight siblings seems to have made her the perpetual target of criticism for high-achieving mother Shireen (Niousha Noor). That hardly changes when lesbian Leila finds herself pregnant from that one dalliance on the other side of the fence, or when her ailing father at last gets to the top of the heart-transplant wait list. The histrionics are neverending in this New Jersey family of Iranian refugees from before the revolution; Keshavarz makes their innate chaos appealing, even if she frequently pushes too hard for effect.

Still, it’s a great relief when the film’s ADD simmers down a bit for a long flashback in which we discover the causes for Shireen’s distemper, rooted in serious mistreatment as a 1960s child bride. This passage has revelations strong enough to ballast the formulaic present-day reconciliation between mother and daughter. But Keshavarz doesn’t trust the honest emotions she’s earned by now to be enough—the film ends in another clutter of hyperactivity (cutting between an equally over-the-top birth and wedding) whose comedy gets capped by a flood of tears.

This is a classic case of debut-feature excess, in which the creator seems to think all the ideas (autobiographical, stylistic, et al.) they ever had must be piled into this one basket, should they never be able to weave another. Let’s hope Keshavarz has gotten that urge out of her system, and that next time her considerable evident talent can be applied with less hyperbolic zeal. The Persian Version opens Fri/27 at SF’s Kabuki and Opera Plaza theaters, expanding Nov. 3 to more venues in the greater Bay Area.

Natural Light

A minimalist tonic to that maximalist overdose is this first narrative feature from documentarian Denes Nagy. It won a Silver Bear at Berlin in 2021, and has finally made its way to North American release on streaming platform Film Movement Plus. It’s one of those movies that arrests attention from its first shot: A raft, bearing two old men and a moose they’ve hunted, moving slowly down a snow-lined river. Alas, they’ve been spotted by soldiers, who quickly seize the game for their own starving ranks.

These troops are Hungarians conscripts acting on behalf of Axis occupiers in the middle of World War II, trying to ferret out agents of underground resistance in the countryside. When they arrive at a village, of course everyone plays dumb; but it is clear from missing menfolk as well as livestock that these peasants are supporting partisans hidden somewhere nearby.

It takes a while for us to realize that Corporal Semetka (Ferenc Szabo) is our protagonist, as at first he’s inseparable from the other unwelcome uniformed visitors, neither more sympathetic in his outlook or more humane in the severity of his interrogation methods. But even he still has ethical lines he will not cross—and this devastatingly low-key narrative (derived from a novel by Pal Zavada) finds them eventually violated without his consent, to his considerable horror.

Natural Light has been compared to late-era Soviet classic Come and See, which is often cited as the screen’s most brutal (yet artful) depiction of man’s wartime inhumanity to man. It’s a much smaller story, but with the same eerie quietude, scant dialogue, and moments of impact that are searing not so much for being graphic (they aren’t) but because we’ve fully assumed the helpless bystander’s stricken perspective.

This is a very beautiful film of delicate earthtones, all mud, rain, overcast skies and bare trees. Yet that aesthetic grace doesn’t lessen the ugliness of complicity in genocide that Semetka is forced to accept as his “duty.” Particularly at this moment in time, Nagy’s tale provides a chilling reminder that in war, nobody ever thinks they’re the bad guy—every cause and crime that history may judge as heinous can be excused as a necessary sacrifice while the battle is as yet unwon, and the victors undetermined.

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