Berlinale 2021 review: A Cop Movie (Alonso Ruizpalacios)

You’ll hear the sirens singing/closer and closer to you.

Like in the Saul Bass-designed opening titles of a Hitchcock film, there seems to be a small hint at the beginning of Alonso Ruizpalacios’ Una película de policías (A Cop Movie): Mónica del Carmen has appeared on the screen. “My name Is María Teresa Hernández Cañas“. The acting credits follow, and Hernández’s name is featured after del Carmen and co-star Raúl Briones. Those of us who recognize Mónica – one of the most interesting actresses in contemporary Mexican cinema – now wonder why the character’s name is featured along with the actress’s. This is not the first time the director has juggled the frontier between reality and mise-en-scène: there is a moment in which Güeros reveals how it is being filmed, while in Museo the actors stand motionless as if they were (actually nonexistent!) photographical archives from the film’s research department. This time, Ruizpalacios is ready to perform his most difficult number.

We follow Teresa’s everyday life as a policewoman in Mexico City. The first scene could be a spin-off of last year’s Midnight Family: a woman is about to give birth to a baby, and the requested ambulance won’t arrive so Teresa has to perform as a doula regardless of her lack of instruction on the subject. It is then that we start learning about the challenges and motivations behind Teresa and every officer: low-income population lacks job opportunities, police training is short and deficient, physical integrity is always at risk, gender violence and ethnic profiling are unavoidable, wages are low and corruption is the status quo on every level of the force. After a few years of work, Teresa meets colleague Montoya. They share a patrol, fall in love, and now live together. They have a dog. We feel empathy towards them. Ruizpalacio’s act, already ambitious in his treatment of fiction and reality, is to be performed with fire: A Cop Movie deals with the emotional depth and moral dilemmas behind law enforcement and its agents. Abuse of power by state forces is not a recent concern, but has certainly become more visible than ever thanks to the access to personal filming devices. As a result the police abolition movement is stronger than ever, and in 2021 any director deciding to humanize the trade of policemen and -women through a feature film will seem, to say the least, to be timing his act badly.

A Cop Movie is, however, more of a survey than an apology. Just when our empathy towards the central characters is reaching its high, we learn they’re accomplices in that ever-present culture of corruption within police forces. Bribery is everywhere, from office secretaries to equipment warehouse attendants. Teresa justifies herself: citizens are accomplices too, and when a bribe is given everyone wins. Corruption is symbiotic. Her perspective, preceded by a series of distressing crime scenes, builds up to a sentiment of an overall lack of hope in Mexico and its culture of violence. The national flag, stitched to every officer’s uniform, is present throughout the film as a reminder of the failure of the country as an institution. It must not be a coincidence that this work was filmed and released in a period in which our (supposedly left-wing) government has decided to transfer the duty of law enforcement in certain areas of the country to a newly formed military force, the Guardia Nacional, despite the historic precedents of failure and violence set by militarized police forces.

Chapter IV. An Actor Prepares.

The trick is revealed: this was always a lip-synch performance. Del Carmen and Briones have not only learnt and performed the audio recordings of interviews given by Teresa and Montoya, but followed the six-month training program of the police academy. As they enter the task force they find parallels between their trades: police officers are also actors… but then again, which profession doesn’t require some sort of acting? Ruizpalacios questions the performative nature of everyday human life and reminds us throughout the film even documentaries are fiction: cameras reflecting on glass; Briones and del Carmen – in character – melding with actual police trainees as they are interviewed in the academy; a plastic rose used as a prop in the reenactment of a romantic episode in the couple’s patrol routine. It’s thanks to this consciousness that the director feels free to channel archetypal elements of police cinema, whether the Lalo Schifrin tunes, the iconic dramatizations of The Thin Blue Line, or even setting up a theatrical chase after a criminal in a metro station. It’s a three-ring circus: a documentary harsh in nature, an experiment in metafiction, a sprinkle of camp. There’s too much happening, but the director is in control and ready to consolidate himself as one of the most solid young voices in Latin American cinema.

Ruizpalacios, an acrobat, jumps from fiction to reality and gravitates in between. Not far from there, Montoya and Teresa fall prey to a system too wild to tame.