El Bonaerense – it means roughly ‘the best man Buenos Aires can offer’ – is a quietly ironic title, which could refer to anyone living in the wider rural area of Buenos Aires (and therefore, perhaps, imply ‘country bumpkin’) or a policeman in the capital of the same name (corrupt, idle, feckless, lying – fill in your own offensive adjective). It was made by Trapero in 2002 with a mixture of European and South American backing; and Trapero, whose second film this is, offers the viewer a surprisingly rich film.
At its heart is a country locksmith, Zapa, who is asked by his employer to open a safe for some friends. Whether he does this regularly, and whether he thinks about the consequences, is left almost entirely open by Trapero (who is one of the five credited writers). The speed of Zapa’s arrest, and the equally speedy release, organised by an ex-cop uncle, and then again the equally speedy way in which he is allowed, although over-age, to become a Buenos Aires trainee policeman: all these take the viewer a little by surprise. I think anyone watching would begin by feeling sympathy for Zapa, although, as the film progressed, would start to question whether that sympathy should be so freely given.
He makes a useless cop, because he is just a little too naive, as well as a little too incompetent. He can’t fire a gun correctly; he can’t understand procedure; and he is bewildered by the relentless favouritism and corruption of the police force, or, worse than that, not really clever enough to see what is happening. Not at first. He seems to be on the road to holding our sympathy when he has an affair with the one arguably decent character, an instructor at the training-camp. Yet he treats her with a sort of unpremeditated savagery, and she objects eventually to his advances.
What we see, slowly, is Zapa gradually adopting the airs and disgraces of his fellow-cops, and sliding gradually into immorality. What gives the film its edge is the way Zapa (Jorge Roman) and his impassive face never entirely reveal whether there is much thinking going on behind it. In the meantime, there is not a single character other than the instructor who has anything other than a passing idea of decency. The film is slow, shadowy – as if shot by twilight – and unsettling: which of course means that the viewer is constantly adjusting the moral compass.
Should I ever go to Buenos Aires, I shall try my best not to get arrested. But what makes Trapero’s film tick is that, again, unlike many American and British movies, there is nothing cut, dried, or even resolved.