A Cop Movie (“Una película de policías”) is a radical experiment on a few different levels. Premiering at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival, this newest film from Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios blurs the boundaries between truth and fiction. Blending true narratives with cinematic fluff and starring both actors and non-actors playing the same roles, the film lands somewhere between an experimental documentary, a video journal, and a Tarantino-esque crime flick.
Style and Substance
The opening scene immediately confronts the viewer with the two recurring themes of A Cop Movie — the reality of the Mexican police system and the blending of truth with fiction. Opening with what appears to be a real live birthing scene (or an incredibly realistic imitation), the film exposes the inefficiencies and corruption of Mexico’s police, as well as the powerlessness of officers trapped in a broken system. An officer arrives on the scene, confronted with an angry family who called for an ambulance hours ago. Despite her lack of medical training, she is forced to deliver the baby on her own.
Following this intense scene, the film transitions into a stylish credit sequence accompanied by groovy music reminiscent of old cop shows from the 1970s. This juxtaposes how police are often portrayed in entertainment with the harsh reality.
Despite its focus on real issues plaguing the Mexican police force, the first half of the movie is incredibly stylish. The cinematography, lighting, and direction are all very smooth and the narrative structure is compelling, embedding us into the lives of the characters. Police officers Teresa and Montoya tell personal stories directly to the camera, as they move between scenes.
Ruizpalacios seems to have mastered the art of “show, don’t tell”, allowing the viewer to piece together the larger picture from the stories told by Teresa and Montoya. This emphasis on personal narrative, combined with the stylish filmmaking and excellent soundtrack, make this feel like a Tarantino film… albeit one where the violence and crime are rooted in brutal reality.
A Brutal Reality
Each story in A Cop Movie speaks to a larger issue, and small details reveal systemic issues. Police officer Montoya grew up in a bad neighborhood. He tells a story about a childhood friend that is now a criminal; they used to play cops and robbers together as kids. Now, they live out those roles in their adult life, on opposite sides of the law.
When a drunk civilian openly challenges Montoya at a parade, Montoya does not engage in a confrontation. Another man asks him why he let the drunk man go, saying “if this was the US, he’d be dead already. See, I live in Miami. If you pull a stunt like this, you’re done”. “Right,” replies Montoya, “But this is Mexico”.
Throughout the film, criminals openly mock, threaten, or bribe police officers. Ambulances take too long to arrive, police officers are more concerned with petty squabbles and securing bribes than upholding justice. Most officers join for the money, and training only lasts six months. At one point, an officer tells a wounded colleague to keep his vest on despite his bullet wound, saying the insurance company won’t pay if they remove the vest.
This directly addresses the danger inherent in being a Mexican police officer. In 2018, 421 Mexican police officers were killed, as opposed to only 55 in the USA. This speaks to larger systemic issues and the lack of safety for law enforcement in Mexico. However, the Mexican police are not only victims, but also perpetrators and enforcers of systemic violence. For example, on 2021’s International Women’s Day, protests against femicide saw heavy-handed response from police. This is not the first time that police violence has occurred at protests against the killing of women – in November 2020, police opened fire at a similar protest in Cancún.
This brutal reality contrasts with A Cop Movie’s stylish portrayal of the Mexican police, yet it also grounds the film and adds depth to its first half.
Halfway through A Cop Movie, the cinematic illusion is shattered. In the middle of a scene, an electric generator shuts off. We see the cameras and the film crew, we hear the audio from the backing track, and the fourth wall is broken.
From here, the movie takes a hard shift from a stylistic narrative into something resembling a documentary or video journal. The actors filmed clips on their phones, supposedly due to restrictions imposed by the Mexican police academy, though this feels unjustified as nearly all the phone clips are recorded in the actors’ homes. The phone footage feels very disruptive, as the aspect ratio shifts from the traditional film ratio to a vertical layout.
Unfortunately, this creative twist ruins the aesthetic that was carefully crafted during the first half of A Cop Movie. While the phone clips provide an unfiltered view of the actors’ perceptions of the Mexican police, they feel too disruptive. After this vlog-like segment, the film reverts to the style from the first half, this time featuring real people playing themselves, as opposed to actors. Unfortunately, by this point, the momentum is gone.
A Radical Experiment
The creative risks taken in A Cop Movie are admirable, but lack cohesion. The result feels like a mashup of three different films. Without the cell phone footage, the movie would be stronger, though admittedly less artistically radical.
One success of A Cop Movie is that it manages to humanize police officers, while still providing a harsh critique of the system. This is something much needed in Mexico’s current political climate. In this regard, the film is a success. It is a mess, but at least it is a creative mess aimed at social change.
A Cop Movie (Spanish: Una película de policías)—Mexico. Dialog in Spanish. Directed by Alonso Ruizpalacios. Running time 1hr 47 min. First released March 1, 2021 at the Berlin International Film Festival. Starring Mónica del Carmen, Raúl Briones.
This article is part of Cinema Escapist‘s coverage of the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival.