Alonso Ruizpalacios’ second feature is a sort of south-of-the-border cousin to Bart Layton’s “American Animals,” the movie released earlier this year about a quartet of college students who stole some rare books from a Kentucky university library in 2004 but made a lot of mistakes in the process and were quickly caught.
“Museo” is based on the theft of a cache of Mayan artifacts from Mexico City’s Museum of Anthropology on Christmas Eve in 1985, but unlike Layton’s picture—which went so far as to include interviews with the actual robbers alongside the dramatization of what they did—it takes substantial creative liberties in constructing a story about the perpetrators, using the tale into a study of the power and poignancy of patrimony. An amusing caption upfront refers to it being “a replica of the original”—though even that characterization might be too kind—but it is a springboard to an imaginative reverie about the potency the past holds over us all.
In this telling, the theft does happen—and the heist sequence is quite brilliantly choreographed by Ruizpalacios, shot by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr., and edited by Craig Hayes and Alex Blatt–and the thieves are a couple of slacker veterinary school students. But they are largely fictionalized versions of the originals, with serious father issues.
Juan Nuñez (Gael Garcia Bernal) is the son of a doctor (Alfredo Castro) who is at best distant. He has a large, raucous family that, in his view, mistreats him—dismissing him as short both in physical stature and in accomplishment. Juan replies with belligerence and rebelliousness: he even destroys his young relatives’ belief in Santa Claus, just because he can, and an uncle suggests he is going down a dangerous path. He mostly sits around his parents’ place, playing video games and charging neighbor kids for a turn, though he also serves as part of the team photographing items in the anthropological museum.
The job gives him the opportunity to observe the place’s security measures, which are frankly rather modest, and he conceives the notion of robbing it. A prologue has already show how the government has been transferring objects from across the country as exhibits, which is a kind of official pilfering of locals’ treasures. It’s not terribly difficult for him to enlist his best friend Benjamin Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris) in the scheme: Wilson, who narrates much of the film, is ostensibly a sad-sack follower of the imperious Juan, though he’s unsettled by the need to pull off the theft earlier than planned, on Christmas Eve—not least because it will require him to leave his ailing father on the holiday. But ultimately he gives in, the job is on, and it succeeds—though not without some tense moments.
What follows is a sort of oddball road trip as the two try to dispose of the loot. The effort takes them to a dodgy friend, Bosco (Bernardo Velasco), who works as a tour guide at a Mayan pyramid site. He reluctantly puts them in contact with a potential buyer—a wealthy British collector (Simon Russell Beale). But he informs them that the items are too well-known to be saleable, which makes Juan even more reckless—so much so that it drives Wilson to go back to Mexico City while Juan goes on a surreal trip to Acapulco.
The turn to surrealism isn’t all that abrupt: there have been snatches of the peculiar throughout: one weird moment—during the drive to find Bosco they’re stopped by the police, one of whom mistakes Bernal for “that famous actor” and asks for an autograph—is priceless, especially in the long shot as Bernal stares intently back at the cops after they’ve been allowed to proceed. In its final act, though, the move toward unreality accelerates: Juan links up with an exotic dancer called Sherezada (Leticia Brédice) and goes gamboling along the seashore with her in a sequence that recalls the Fellini of “8½,” and a postscript about the possible loss of the stolen artifacts to the forces of nature is a canny allusion to how that could easily have happened long before.
“Museo” returns to sad reality toward the close, when both Juan and Wilson have to face their fathers, though in very different ways, and many viewers will be dissatisfied with the finale back at the museum, where choices are made that carry a comforting tone that might seem out of synch with what’s preceded.
If the film isn’t entirely of a piece, however—its tonal shifts are far too great for that—it exhibits spurts of brilliance that make it well worth watching. And its cast is marked by similar excellence. Bernal brings his authority to Juan, and while Ortizgris can’t match him, Castro does. Equally remarkable is Beale, who brings a wealth of experience and cunning to his single scene.
The result is that “Museo” is an excellent, though quite different, counterpart to “American Animals.” The two pictures might well be enjoyed in tandem.