Museo September 30, 2021
Gael García Bernal
Simon Russell Beale
2 Hrs., 8 Mins.
t’s surprising they got away with it as long as they did. In the very early hours of Christmas Day, 1985, a couple of restless young men scrabbled through the National Museum of Anthropology’s air-conditioning ducts and about a half an hour later walked away with backpacks fat with artifacts. They wouldn’t be caught for three and a half years — a period that saw an unexpectedly feverish public outcry (and actually brought more
visitors than ever before to the museum) and also unfortunately brought no riches to the culprits, who didn’t consider before moving forward with their heist of 124 priceless pieces that this loot might be too fraught for a buyer to enthusiastically claim.
This infamous incident serves as the basis of Alonso Ruizpalacios’s Museo
(2018), a movie more interested in the probable emotional contours behind this story than with its minute-to-minute facts. (The first thing we see in the film is a title card announcing that what we’re about to see is a replica of the original.) Also averse to the slickness that permeates most heist thrillers, Museo more than anything takes aim at the imagined relationship between its fictionalized offenders, and the intriguing moral contradictions that arise when you’re stealing items that were technically stolen to begin with.
The protagonists of Museo are Juan and Wilson (Gael García Bernal and Leonardo Ortizgris), best friends and graduate students nearing the end of veterinary school who hope to soon open their own clinic. Both are still living with their families, are disaffected, and are strapped for cash. The ill-judged, fairly out-of-the-blue plan to rob the anthropology museum is of course borne mainly of wanting to never again worry about money. But what seems to stick most out about it for the duo is that it will probably be exciting — something to temporarily make these men, who are always reminded of their smallness in the world, feel larger. They convince themselves there isn’t any need to feel guilty about what they’re doing because, if it’s OK for a museum to get away with theft, why shouldn’t they be able to, too?
Juan and Wilson’s relationship, which started building in childhood, feels lived-in. Sour Juan is the kind to get a little bit off on ruining Christmas Eve by telling his younger cousins Santa’s not real; he’s always pushed the deferential Wilson around. Wilson, in turn, has always done whatever Juan has wanted probably out of insecurity: this devastatingly shy guy ostensibly doesn’t have any other friends besides the bossy Juan. Bernal’s performance is pitch-perfectly dickish and later on hilariously bumbling; Ortizgris can be touching in certain moments as a young man who is submissive, too meek to stand up for himself, to the point of destructiveness. But while we have some sympathy for these blundering friends, it’s not because Ruizpalacios has romanticized them. He sees them with clear eyes.
One might assume the centerpiece of Museo would be the heist that inspired it. But it happens fairly early into the movie, doesn’t take up very much of the north-of-two-hours runtime, and is actually less suspenseful than it is breezily underwhelming. The biggest snafus Juan and Wilson face are securing a getaway car and sneaking away from their respective family holiday festivities. Juan and Wilson barely have to be careful getting inside — the museum’s guards are few, spread out, and unobservant — and once the friends claim their first treasure (they melt the glue that holds a given item’s protective encasing in place), they practically cruise.
Ruizpalacios throws some stylistic touches on this sequence that are at once cool and a little bit funny. Rather than dramatize the heist in its entirety, he abbreviates it by throwing at us what amounts to a slide show of action shots. And when music appears before the heist officially gets going, it’s noisy and dramatic in a way that feels purposely jarring. It doesn’t match the mood of the otherwise silent sequence (whose tone is more jaunty than it is totally nerve-wracking) because it’s instead amplifying the gravity of what these men are doing, and hinting at the seismic fallout to come.
That fallout, which takes up the rest of Museo and pretty much defines it, invites in some of the film’s most darkly funny moments: a sobering meet-up with a stern art collector (Simon Russell Beale) who can’t believe Juan and Wilson didn’t have the foresight to consider these items are too valuable to be sold; a brief moment where, after a beachside cocaine binge with a has-been porn star he’s met purely by happenstance (Leticia Brédice), Juan convinces himself he’s lost his artifact-stuffed red backpack. But the comedy of Museo never veers into overbroad slapstick, much like how Ruizpalacios’s stylistic flourishes never get too sophisticated. The film tries to stay planted in real life; it’s grounded by its convincingly co-dependent lead performances and Ruizpalacios’s measured and thoughtful approach to what is outwardly a too-wild-to-be-true curiosity of a story. B+