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Alonso Ruizpalacios: A Cop Movie (2021) | featured image

Alonso Ruizpalacios ‘A Cop Movie’ Walks a Thin Genre Line

Alonso Ruizpalacios’ sort of documentary, ‘A Cop Movie’ (Una película de policías), takes on the challenge of presenting what real-life policing looks like.

A Cop Movie (Una película de policías)
Alonso Ruizpalacios
4 November 2021 (Netflix) | March 2021 (Berlinale)

Fictional narrative films look and feel different from documentaries. Directors have the benefit of multiple takes, lighting, and precise camera movement with the former. If all the elements are composed well, the audience comes away believing – at least for the moment – that the unfolding story is real. That’s the magic of cinema. 

With two fictional films under his belt, A Cop Movie (Una película de policías) director Alonso Ruizpalacios established himself as one of Mexico’s most innovative up-and-coming filmmakers. His debut, the playful and stylish Güeros (2014) is a journey through Mexico City in search of a mythical folk musician. His 2018 follow-up, Museo, is a politically charged heist caper challenging traditional notions of cultural heritage. A documentary exploring the inner workings of Mexico City police is a departure from his work so far, delving into one of the most polarizing topics imaginable while playing with the protective veneer of fiction. 

Narrators Teresa and Montoya are the guides into the daily routines of the police force in one of the world’s largest cities. Along the way, they share their reasons for joining and the realities they’ve faced. No amount of training could have adequately prepared them for what they encounter on the job. Yet, they took the plunge.

In the film’s initial sequence, a garbled dispatcher narrates the night in a complex code as Teresa drives through the streets of De-Efe. Around every corner is a potential danger. She pulls up to a residential building. It quickly becomes clear that an ambulance would be more appropriate. None are forthcoming, so she grabs a set of gloves and heads back in.

“If it ends up well, I already did it,” the woman who has spent half of her life on the force says. “But if it ends up bad, the responsibility is mine.” 

The access is incredible, becoming apparent that the footage is possibly too good. Did a camera crew capture Teresa’s role as an untrained midwife supporting childbirth in progress? Did those coins really pass from a passerby’s hand to Montoya’s, confirming the quotidian corruption that most public officials would reflexively deny or, at least, downplay to being the result of a few bad apples?

Classic film score composer Lalo Schifrin’s cool spy tunes add a touch of panache to the scenes as a surreal vibe starts to emerge. This is nonfiction, right? The word even flashes on the screen during the introductory title sequence. A Cop Movie leaves you wondering. 

But what does real-life policing look like? Reality TV show Cops, with its iconic reggae opening, was a mainstay on American televisions for decades – warning the so-called “bad boys” of what was coming for them. Dashboard footage of traffic stops and patrols sit deep in the popular consciousness.

On true crime shows, reenactments fill the blanks for the crimes that, for obvious reasons, were not captured on camera. Ruizpalacios constructs a complex collage of policing on the streets of Mexico City and the training – official and otherwise – of the individuals in the contentious role. Without giving too much away, his cards are revealed in a satisfying way.

Both in the US and internationally, calls for police reform are gaining traction. However, the muddling of policing as a means to pay the bills, policing as an identity, and policing as a larger public system at the intersection of society’s most pressing problems, makes it nearly impossible to have a coherent conversation on what reform would look like.

A thought-provoking watch that doesn’t offer any easy solutions, A Cop Movie examines the professional performances of two Mexico City cops to unpack a loaded subject into discrete, jagged elements. The “truth”, or at least the one represented in this documentary, defies categorization.

RATING 7 / 10