‘Museo’ Works Fine as a Heist Film but Brings So Much More

True Story of Slackers Stealing Mayan Artifacts Has Kinetic Energy

Gael Garcìa Bernal (c) and Leonardo Ortizgris (r) meet with shady dealer Simon Russell Beale (l) in Alonso Ruizpalacios’s ‘Museo.’ (Vitagraph Films)

Heritage is paramount in Alonso Ruizpalacios’ stylish caper Museo, superficially a heist film but more urgently a jagged, shaggy portrait of one man’s searching need to claim birthright, mark territory, and prove to himself that I Am Somebody. It’s an x-ray look at an anxious Mexican bourgeois underachiever who’s taken a fuck-you defensive crouch against the weight of his country’s glorious ancient history; it’s existential despair served up with tasty genre trimmings.


MUSEO ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Alonso Ruizpalacios
Written by: Manuel Alcalá, Alonso Ruizpalacios
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Leonardo Ortizgris, Alfredo Castro, Simon Russell Beale, Ilse Salas, Lynn Gilmartin
Running time: 128 min.


The filmmakers based Museo on the true story of ancient Mayan artifacts brazenly stolen from the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City—not by professional traffickers or seasoned pros but by a pair of soft-bellied thirty-something layabouts living in the upper-middle-class suburbia of Satélite. The question is: despite all their economic advantages, why did they do it?

Christmas Eve 1985, and Juan Núñez (Gael García Bernal) is about to suffer another holiday with his extended family. But it’s clear he’s the insufferable one, griping like an overeducated twit about the capitalistic excess of the gift-giving season so he can shirk off his new responsibility to don his dead grandfather’s Santa Claus suit and hand out presents to his nieces and nephews.

He and his pendejo buddy Benjamín Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris) can’t seem to get it together enough to finish veterinary school, let alone move out of their respective parents’ houses. So they’ve hatched a plan: raid the museum and make a fortune selling some of its priceless treasures to shady antique dealers. They originally chose New Year’s Eve for the job, but Juan changes it to Christmas once he hears that the museum starts renovations the following day. Forget about the fact that Wilson’s ailing dad may not live through another holiday season. Juan insists it has to be done that night.

Even though this is Juan’s story first and foremost, Benjamín narrates, taking the audience through the duo’s surprisingly effective virgin theft (140 items!) and the half-baked events that follow. His voice, though not wise enough for insight, does give context to Juan, who otherwise seems to have an allergic aversion to introspection. Actions speak louder than words, as does music: Juan and Benjamín casually listen without irony to Silvestre Revueltas’ angry, fevered score to “Night of the Mayas,” whose pulsing symphonic majesty conjures up the ghosts of their ancestors—a reminder of what Mexico was like before Mexico.

“Those who did it are miserable bastards with no past or future,” declares Juan’s dad when the family watches the TV news report of the crime. “I hope they rot in their own curse. They are the dark shit of this country. When they catch them, it is our duty to whip them in the main square. To drag their damn bodies until they bleed out.” A nervous Juan says nothing.

As the deed remains unpunished in the days that follow, Interpol gets involved, a 50 million peso reward is announced, and the antsy duo make their way down to Acapulco to meet up with Falstaffian collector Frank Graves (a deliciously indignant Simon Russell Beale). “There’s no preservation without plunder,” he tells them in Spanish, before switching to his native tongue to explain how even priceless objects can sometimes be too valuable.

In lesser hands, the drama would have been a B-movie toss-off. But the whole account of the fairly straightforward real-life events gets super-sized into almost Shakespearean tragedy under Ruizpalacios’ steady helm. Even his bizarre digressions lay bare Juan’s arrested sense of manhood: a comely black woman in a tan bikini saunters by with a sultry stare and a cryptic nosebleed; an obsession over a softcore porn actress leads to an improbable drunk dalliance a la playa. Fantasy always supersedes reality.

The director’s technique cops to other influences, too, framing a robbery sequence with nods to Godard, staging a bar brawl with almost Brechtian self-awareness, and shooting the primary-colored urban sculpture Torres de Satélite with enough ennui that it feels an outtake from an Antonioni film. Even the obligatory “Based on a True Story” disclaimer gets a cheeky tweak. “This Story is a Replica of the Original,” it confesses with a wink.

That glib preface is more truthful than it sounds: early on, Wilson’s weary voiceover mentions how Juan didn’t believe in history books. “No one could know why someone did what they did,” he says, paraphrasing his friend. True enough, but Ruizpalacios’ fictionalized account, even with all its embellishments, has far more honesty in it than any confession could hold.

Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. He is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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