Museo elevates power of myth in identity via heist of precious Mexican artifacts

Courtesy Vitagraph Films

Museo, the new film by Mexico’s latest great director, Alonso Ruizpalacios, once again offers a rumination on the country’s capital city through the eyes of people who have yet to grow up. However, this is no repeat of Güeros (Güeros: A coming of age in an ode to Mexico City — a film review). The subjects aren’t young adults or children but a pair of man boys in their 30s who think they can make $1 million by stealing some of the most precious artifacts from the giant Museum of Anthropology in El D.F. They find themselves in over their heads when they come to realize the goods are so valuable that no collector wants them.

Gael García Bernal, who also executive produced the film, stars as the mastermind, Juan. Bernal looks almost as young as he did in Y Tu Mamá También and plays a character who acts nearly as naive as his character did in the 2001 movie that made him an international star. The actor also seems personally revitalized to be performing in his native Mexico, giving a heartfelt, dynamic performance of a conflicted character. Leonardo Ortizgris plays his accomplice, Benjamin Wilson, a man whose heart is with his ailing father more than Juan’s scheme. This becomes a point of contention between the two, as they road trip to Acapulco to find a contact to fence their goods and Benjamin receives words Papá is in the hospital. Both dudes, friends from childhood, live in the suburbs of Satelite and are dragging their feet through their studies to become veterinarians.

Courtesy Vitagraph Films

The movie, whose script the director co-wrote with producer Manuel Alcalá, is based on a true story involving the 1985 Christmas Eve theft of over 100 mostly Mayan artifacts that shocked the nation in its brazenness. Museo premiered earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival where it won the Silver Bear award for Best Screenplay. Work on the script began as an oral history of those with direct knowledge of the heist. Conflicting views, however, forced the filmmakers to make some of it up. This actually plays well into the film’s themes of the improbability of a straight story when reconciling with the past. Mexico City, after all, was built by colonizing Spaniards on the ancient civilization of the Aztecs who themselves had built their empire on another ancient civilization. Specifics about the earliest people has been lost to uncharted or inconsistent, unverifiable history and so begins the myths that fuel the artifacts. Reflective of this, instead of becoming bogged down by the details of the heist, the filmmakers embrace its myth. The only thing that is shown as certain is death, which appears in several forms, the most florid touch being the recurring appearance of children singing a song that goes “death is our eternal companion.”

Ruizpalacios embraces this broader, living sense of vagueness by even foregoing a title card establishing the day of the event. The timing of the theft is only represented by the fact Juan and Benjamin slip away late on Christmas Eve to the museum. The following morning, Juan’s family shows more concern for a TV news report about the heist on the TV news than the aftermath of Mexico’s deadliest earthquake, which happened months earlier. Therefore, it’s 1985. Juan’s father (Alfredo Castro) says those responsible should be hanged in the city center and their corpses dragged through the streets. Meanwhile, his mother (Lisa Owen) breaks down in tears.

Unlike Ruizpalacios’ debut feature, this movie makes a wide turn as far as cinematography. Whereas Güeros was shot in black and white in the 4:3 aspect ratio, Museo is widescreen color and features an often shallow focus that highlights the film’s objects, highlighting them to such a degree that they become characters of sorts. You may feel the film’s length at points, during some repetitive scenes and languorous moments, but they all work in service to the grander scheme. When Juan becomes annoyed by Benjamin’s concern for his ailing father, it becomes palpable to the audience. Then there are stylized moments that capture the thieves’ painstaking work to lift the artifacts, shot with the actors freezing in poses, flecks of dust swirling telltale in the light, with no music to heighten any sense of tension. The “freeze frames” instead highlight the precious objects, which were reproduced by the production department with such detail, the producers plan on sending them on tour.

Courtesy Vitagraph Films

Recalling Alfonso Cuarón’s own penchant for single takes, there’s a scene where the crooks meet a potential buyer (Simon Russell Beale) who lays out the layers of their ill-conceived efforts to sell the items. Though the scene takes place in one room with only dialogue, the camera’s casual movement allows the viewer to focus on the ebb and flow of the dialogue while never betraying its tension. The characters’ exchange is also rife with the conflicting feelings Juan has about the artifacts and where they might belong after the civilization that created them has disappeared. In an earlier scene, inside a Mayan pyramid in Palenque, Juan entertains the notion that K’inich Janaab Pakal, ruler of the Classic Maya polity of Palenque and whose jade mosaic funerary mask is among their stolen goods, never died on earth but actually took off in a spaceship.

Myth and the stories we tell are revealed as what gives artifacts from long ago value, not the material they’re made of or their unique craftsmanship. Museo also shows how identity is both fragile and unshakable. With its leisurely pace and its indulgences in technique, the movie never seeks to hide the medium the auteur uses to transmit his ideas. From these little pieces representing a lost civilization to a dance on an Acapulco beach with a movie star of a bygone era (Leticia Brédice), Ruizpalacios communicates this notion by allowing cinema to simply exist.

Hans Morgenstern

Museo runs 128 minutes, is in English and Spanish with English subtitles and is not rated. It opens in our South Florida area in the following counties and theaters on Friday, Sept. 21:

For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Vitagraph Films sent us an online screener for the purpose of this review. After its theatrical run, the film will stream on YouTube for its premium members sometime at the end of the year.

(Copyright 2018 by Independent Ethos. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)


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