A Cop Movie, 2021.
Co-written and directed by Alonso Ruizpalacios.
Starring Mónica Del Carmen and Raúl Briones.
A radical experiment combining documentary and fictional elements. The film gives voice to one of Mexico’s most controversial institutions: the police force, and unravels the causes of the impunity crisis that plagues the justice system.
Alonso Ruizpalacios’ (Museo) docu-fiction hybrid A Cop Movie is a bold experiment that becomes even bolder given the climate we’re living through, where global distrust of the police is at an all-time high, and few are willing to give even apparent “good cops” the benefit of the doubt given the corroded system they operate within.
Ruizpalacios’ film opens with a dashcam shot from the cruiser of Mexico City police officer María Teresa Hernández Cañas. The high-fidelity video, cinematic lighting, and crystal-clear audio recording are really the only obvious indicators we’re not watching a documentary, a fact which the filmmaker lovingly toys with again and again over the course of his head-spinningly playful work.
The seemingly straightforward, traditional cinematic narrative of Teresa’s cop beat is interrupted by Teresa’s own docu-style voiceover narration, and far more bewilderingly, occasionally breaking the fourth wall to stare directly at the audience as she monologues. For many, such cleverness may be a step too far, but its conceptual strangeness nevertheless allows Ruizpalacios to crowbar open a totally unique conversation about the state of policing in both Mexico and the wider world.
In addition to Teresa, the film also focuses on her partner both as a cop and in life, José de Jesús Rodríguez Hernández (aka Montoya), and the unique circumstances which led each to the profession and eventually to each other. Yet just as audiences might begin to let their guard down and enjoy the sweet romantic vibes – their colleagues amusingly refer to them as “the Love Patrol” – at the mid-way point there’s a sharp turn in the film’s established meta-narrative conceit.
It’s practically impossible to discuss the film in much further detail without spoiling said turn, so you’ve been warned.
Gliding on an air of unpredictability as the film does, Ruizpalacios then reveals that not only are Teresa and Montoya actors – as viewers will surely have ascertained – but prior to shooting they actually spent 101 days embedded in a real police academy as new recruits in order to learn their craft convincingly.
Through confessionals recorded on their own phones, we’re able to glean the actors’ own feelings about the police and their confliction in portraying a class of people they’re perhaps not hugely fond of. As the pair tear down the ineffective police training process in Mexico, and even get to ride-along with real cops, the lines of reality become ever-more blurred.
These layers of artifice continue to peel back for the film’s remainder, leading to a climax in which yet another plane of reality is unfurled. This added rug-pull lends an ultimate human gravitas to the struggle of even well-intended cops to be upstanding people in a system that, in Mexico far more than in the U.S., deems them of such low value.
Even from Teresa’s opening cinematic dispatch call, there’s a clear desire here to highlight Mexico’s resource-constrained police, as well as the strangely informal relationship between cops and criminals, and the general lack of respect for cops who most citizens are keen to bribe away. This is without even getting into the sexism and sexual harassment Teresa deals with within the department and on the streets on a daily basis.
The result is empathetic to good-hearted police but sure not to hand-wave the corrupt system they’re also a part of. With a self-perpetuating cottage industry of bribery, where cops are paid pitiable salaries that encourage them to accept pay-offs, and where citizens generally hate them, where can honest cops even go?
The complexities of being a good cop in a power structure where you have little public value, and you’re asked to balance empathy with thick-skinned detachment, forces the act of policing itself to become a transformative performance, as dovetails neatly into the film’s own, more literal metatextual gimmick.
It’s perhaps par the course to call the film gorgeously shot and sublimely atmospheric as its style necessitates. The director expresses such a clear love for the stylistic tropes of cop movies and TV shows – the 70s-style zooms, moody music, and jazzy opening titles (albeit juxtaposed here with images of police brutality) – yet never lets such fondness undermine the very real message of his movie.
But the real triumph here is in finding two actors so persuasively committed to their parts. Neither Mónica Del Carmen (who plays Teresa) nor Raúl Briones (who plays Montoya) have a whiff of movie star about them, each bringing serious empathy to the fore and, in some of the film’s most entertaining scenes, superb chemistry as a couple.
It goes without saying that any film playing this fast and loose with reality will rub some viewers the wrong way, but Ruizpalacios resists the urge to get overly cute or clever with it, instead embracing a soupy collision of fiction and non-fiction to broach a pressing social issue in a totally unique way.
A Cop Movie’s tricksy conceit belies the fact that it’s one of cinema’s most creative and thoughtful indictments of modern policing in recent times.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.