Like an episode of Cops filmed by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Alonso Ruizpalacios’ A Cop Movie is a nesting-doll narrative that plays freely with documentary forms before pulling back and engaging with its own fictional artifice. It’s a fascinating structural gambit, one that manages to both empathize with and interrogate the men and women in blue. Divvied up into five chapters, Ruizpalacios’ film first introduces officers Teresa and Montoya. Teresa drives around in her cruiser with the camera planted just behind the windshield, creating a frame within the frame, while answering distress calls and recounting her personal history directly to the audience via voiceover. She tells of always having wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a cop, how he was initially resistant to the idea, and then how overwhelmed she was when he wrote her a private letter detailing how proud he actually was. But Ruizpalacios, who here employs some visual distortion — an anamorphic lens that tends to warp images on the far right and left of the screen — also begins manipulating narrative conventions almost immediately. He places Teresa in re-enactments of her own stories while she’s in the process of telling them, in effect interacting with her own memories. In Chapter 2, we follow Montoya, an altogether surlier narrator, who is quickly shown to be Teresa’s partner. Chapter 3 details their relationship both on and off the job, before ending in a complete narrative rupture, with someone yelling “cut” and the camera pivoting to reveal a film set full of crew and equipment. Chapter 4 chronicles the training that the actors portraying Teresa and Montoya went through in preparing for their roles, actually enrolling in a police academy, taking classes, and recording diaristic testimonials via their cellphones. Monica del Carmen (formerly Teresa) seems invigorated by the physical challenge, while Raul Briones (Montoya) admits that he doesn’t like police and almost immediately regrets taking the role. Finally, Chapter 5 switches gears yet again, featuring brief, portrait-style talking head interviews with actual trainees describing what attracted them to the job and then introducing the “real” Teresa and Montoya, although by this point the line between real and fake, or documentary and fiction, has totally blurred into a largely theoretical distinction. The real Teresa and Montoya begin trading off storytelling duties with their fictional counterparts, Monica and Raul, while detailing what appears to be a true story of their conflicts with their commanding officers and their ultimate demotion and then dismissal from the force.
Having begun production in 2019, A Cop Movie predates the eruption of anti-police sentiment during the many Black Lives Matter protests in the spring and summer of 2020, as well as the plethora of detailed policy papers about what exactly a de-militarized and de-funded police force might look like. And while one obviously cannot draw a direct line between Mexican and American societies, however intertwined they may be geopolitically, it’s nevertheless awkward timing to release a largely sensitive account of the trials and tribulations of low-level beat officers. In other words, this isn’t an ACAB-style diatribe, although Ruizpalacio is careful to show not just how casually corrupt the police force is, but also how obsequious it is towards minor politicians and how it is unable to respond to even the basic needs of citizens. (Early in the film, Teresa helps deliver a baby because there are no ambulances to be found, and the unavailability of paramedics becomes a recurring motif throughout the movie.) Ruizpalacios has spent the last few years working mostly in television, including helming a few episodes of Narcos: Mexico for Netflix, which is also releasing A Cop Movie. As a behind-the-scenes look at the real people behind these kinds of police-centered entertainments, A Cop Movie is a clever bit of deconstruction. But it doesn’t seem to add up to much beyond this clever grab bag of meta-techniques, and it certainly isn’t engaging in any up-to-the-minute political discourse, but at least it’s not brandishing Blue Lives Matter copaganda either. Ultimately, Ruizpalacios seems to value individuals while properly chastising the flawed institution they operate within.
Published as part of Berlin Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 6.