The protagonists of the film are thieves and their stories are thieves’ stories. They occurred primarily in Mexico City in the 1960s and 1970s, including all kinds of activities beyond the border of the law: begging, stealing, burglaries, robberies, fraud and murder…
The film The Old Thieves is based on the narration of several protagonists, who bring their life stories alive for the spectators in front of the camera. The plots of most of these stories are not surprising at all. Starting on the street in the early childhood of the protagonists, they continue by thefts of toys and bicycles and their first stays in penal institutions. From these, the young men undertake more burglaries and attacks, the intensity of which increases, the criminals getting more experienced and notorious, which brings them not only a richer loot but also more frequent imprisonments, which finally culminate by a sound sentence. What is left of all the bygone fame are recollections, in a better case a part of the loot buried underground. ** However, the stories are not the film’s primary focus. It is the personalities of the narrators that are in the limelight. **
The main quartet of the old thieves and their point of view is supplemented and commented by that of a number of retired policemen, who once stood on the other side of the fence (although such antagonism is challenged several times in the film in an interesting way). Although the performance of the old policemen is not as expressive and attractive as the one of the old thieves, not even they are able to rid their stories of a romanticizing undertone, which is an integral part of the stories of policemen and thieves after all.
Especially the old thieves just love the presence of the camera. At the moment of shooting, they can step out of their miserable condition and enjoy their faded glory. In front of the camera, they are philosophizing, educating, telling great stories. They can not only involve their listeners in their narration but also manipulate them perfectly well. They perform as if they were experienced actors, making us realize that besides skilful hands, their profession also requires skilful tongues. ** When speaking about their (criminal) acts, they are actually boasting. Boasting and bragging. Cleverly, they give their stories a tone which will not raise loathing and disgust but curiosity, admiration or even sympathy in their listeners. ** (“It was not about greed at all”, says El Carrizos at the beginning of his story. “Imagine that as a small boy, I never knew the joy of finding a present under the Christmas tree. Why not? Because there never was any!”)
Driven by the rhythm of the old criminals’ narration, the film continues its pleasant flow. The accompanying archive material arouses feelings of nostalgia in the viewers, blunting the sharp edges of the crimes. Some of the stories are exciting, others amusing, illuminating; one often feels like shouting: Bravo! (e.g. when the unofficial burglar king and the film’s main “star” El Carrizos tells about how he managed to rob the Mexican president).
If told well, the thieves’ stories are always captivating; there is no wonder that the stories of the “famous Mexican crooks” function in the very same way. ** This, however, makes the ending of the film even more captivating, with the intrusive present roughly penetrating the stories of the past, turning its laboriously constructed romanticism upside down. ** At one moment, the improvized backdrop behind the heads of the protagonists falls down and we come to realize that the interviews are held not in a film studio but in prison cells, which many of the protagonists will never leave again, with respect to their long sentences. The short escape to the past is gone and the carefully constructed image of the fabulous robbers’ romanticism disappears under the weight of imprisonment and deep, painful loneliness.
If you liked the film The Old Thieves, watch the film by Alexandru Solomon The Great Communist Robbery.
Doc Alliance is a creative partnership of 7 key European documentary film festivals. Our aim is to advance the documentary genre, support its diversity and promote quality creative documentary films.