A few years ago, Mexican writer/director Alonso Ruizpalacios made a splash on the world film scene with Güeros, which I saw at a local film festival. It had some of the typical traits of a debut film: low budget, black and white, inventive shooting on location; but it also had an interesting flavor all its own. Three young men venture out into Mexico City during a time of crisis, the 1999 University strike that practically shut the metropolis down. The three friends, who are not students and not part of the strike, are searching for a legendary folk musician, their shared idol, who is reportedly close to death in a hospital. Along the way, they experience a wide range of sometimes humorous, sometimes disturbing social realities.
Now we have a second feature from Ruizpalacios called Museo. Once again, there are typical elements that you would expect from a sophomore effort after a filmmaker has had success with his first picture. Museo has higher production values, it’s in color, and it has a few “name” actors, notably Gael García Bernal in the lead role. And like most second films, we see the director trying to make a bigger statement and find his voice. There are drawbacks to this, but for the most part, this is a solid effort that expands on Ruizpalacios’s concerns.
García Bernal plays Juan Nuñez, a disaffected young man, still living with his parents in Satélite, a prosperous Mexico City suburb. We meet him on Christmas Eve, expressing disdain towards the holiday, which he considers a form of capitalist abuse, and his siblings in their turn mocking his pretensions and lack of ambition. In his childhood, when his father first took him to the National Museum of Anthropology, he learned how Mayan ruins were plundered in order to become part of the museum’s collection, and since then he has harbored a resentment against the appropriation of ancient treasures by the conquerors of Mexico, such as Cortés.
Juan has a secret plan—with the help of his longtime friend Benjamin, he will rob the Museum, which has a very poor security system, of its most valuable Mayan artifacts, thus striking back at the system that he hates. On this night, he hears from the TV that they need to pull off that heist right then, on Christmas Eve, instead of New Year’s Eve, as they’d planned, because repairs are going to start the next day.
Benjamin narrates the story, and he is played by Leonardo Ortizgris, who was one of the stars of Güeros. Ben is less assertive than Juan, even timid at times, and it’s clear that he looks up to him. As the film goes on we see that Juan bullies Benjamin, and that of course causes problems.
The film, written by Ruizpalacios and Manuel Alcalá, was based on the actual robbery, in 1985, of the Museum of Anthropology, a notorious event in Mexico. They’ve altered some of the details in the interests of drama, and the concerns of the movie lie not so much in the heist as in the character of the two thieves, especially Juan. His motivations, we discover, turn out to be a lot different, and more complex, than he thinks. Although he tells himself he’s striking a blow against the cultural thievery that has afflicted native peoples, he uses his convictions as an excuse to make a profit himself. He highly overrates his own abilities and maturity, and this becomes more and more evident in the aftermath of the robbery, which creates a far greater sensation than either of them expected.
The picture is beautifully shot and scored, and as I hinted, just a little bit tentative in its method, but it transcends the conventions of the caper picture to become a very interesting and engaging character study. In one scene, there’s a sort of in-joke where a soldier at a checkpoint mistakes Juan for a movie star and asks for his autograph. Gael García Bernal is in fact Mexico’s biggest movie star right now, but he melts into the part of this dynamic but confused young man. Museo maintains its interest, and its tension, right to the end.