I was completely unfamiliar with Mexican writer/director Alonso Ruizpalacios before screening his latest film, Museo. I’ll be tracking down the rest of his surprisingly limited catalog in short order, because what he’s accomplished with his sophomore effort is nothing less than remarkable.
What appears, for all intents and purposes, to be a standard based-on-a-true-story heist flick becomes something much more personal and profound under Ruizpalacios’ ministrations, a moving glimpse into the perceived reality of a man struggling for meaning. I was prepared to enjoy Museo as the tense caper flick it appeared to be — and I most certainly did — but I was totally unprepared for the exceptionally stylish, almost Felliniesque magical realism that Ruizpalacios brings to bear on his subject.
At its core, this is a narrative recounting the unbelievably audacious Christmas 1985 robbery of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, in which two hapless stoners somehow managed to walk away with 140 priceless Mayan artifacts. But the story Ruizpalacios is really telling here is one about thwarted ambition, tortured familial relationships and a toxic friendship that could only lead to tragedy. Gael García Bernal stars as Juan, an underachieving veterinary student from a family of doctors who enlists weak-willed buddy Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris) in his misguided scheme when they both would have been better off sticking to their shared affection for Pink Floyd and Atari games. It could just as easily have played like a buddy comedy, but Ruizpalacios and co-screenwriter Manuel Alcalá take it somewhere much more interesting.
Yes, the heist scene itself is everything you’d hope, harkening back to quasi-nihilistic French noir of the 1950s like Jules Dassin’s Rififi and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur, or to a lesser extent John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungleand Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing if you’re looking for antecedents on this side of the pond. But that’s all out of the way less than an hour in, leaving Ruizpalacios free to delve deep into character development and experimental stylization. Juan’s inspiration for the theft seems to stem from half-remembered nationalistic sentiments voiced by his father on a family excursion to the Mayan exhibit, and the motive for the crime itself can be directly linked to dear old dad’s disappointment in his wastrel son. But it’s the way that Ruizpalacios elucidates these psychological drives through purely cinematic means that makes Museosuch a remarkable piece of filmmaking — all of those Carlos Castañeda references aren’t incidental, after all.
As Juan and Wilson ineptly try to fence their hot merchandise, their flimsy justifications of cultural repatriation and familial altruism fall apart, while the futility of their crime becomes increasingly evident. At the core of this caper is a sticky paradox — Juan is seeking to return his people’s cultural identity by stealing the very items that symbolize it, but how can you really steal something that’s already been stolen many times over? It’s a fascinating conundrum, especially in light of the very human impetus that Ruizpalacios and Alcalá attach to the act. Museo tackles challenging intellectual questions and relatable human failings through a distinctly cinematic lens, and it’s that singularly visual approach that makes this a museum-worthy work of art.