Thanks to increasing production in the petroleum industry the previous decade, the Mexico of the 1980s could flex its muscles internationally and intrastate. Nationalism is to a large extent the projection of a cultural identity. For his second film, Alonso Ruizpalacios (Gueros) examines how the Christmas Day 1985 theft of Mayan artifacts from Mexico City’s Anthropology Museum re-awakened the country’s outrage over several century’s worth of cultural looting. Museo functions as heist film and social comedy; its last third is pure absurdism. It confirms Ruizpalacios as a director to reckon with.
If Gueros excelled as a portrait of rootless youth bored by their own activism, Museo concentrates on men many years past their first bloom and who superficially have nothing to overcome except diminishing familial expectations. When the theft became known, it’s easy to imagine popular indignation — captured by period newscasts in which reporters editorialize with a confidence that would unnerve American journalists — if not shame over the fact that the suspects came from upper middle class families, one of whom pursued a degree in veterinary sciences. But they’re restless, still in their thirties and living at home. To support a marijuana habit, Juan (Gael García Bernal) gets a job at the Anthropology Museum. His best friend Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris), reluctant to leave his dying father, is even more passive. It’s Wilson’s after-the-fact voice-over narration, often poetical-philosophical in a Godardian manner but also tougher than the child-man shown onscreen, that lends Museo extra heft.
As an example of their drift, Wilson and Juan do a William Tell routine, an exercise in staged violence which could be their closest brush to the real thing. Ruizpalacios and co-scenarist Manuel Alcalá establish the rhythms of Juan’s family: a mama’s boy, domineering father (Alfredo Castro), suffocatingly devoted to the performance of caring. On Nochebuena, the night before the heist, the half-eaten food, smeared dishes, and rehearsed insults have a warmth, albeit a belligerent one (Juan is so sick of this crap that he tells his nephews and cousins what Star Wars toys Santa left them). In a delicious twist, Juan has to borrow his dad’s car for the heist.
Imaginatively shot with an attention to finding the apt angle of vision, Museo has the texture of felt life. A class of students playing recorders in the first scene, thanks to cinematographer Damián García, are lit like objects in a horror film. The theft sequence uses silence and a series of Van Sant-indebted friezes. The problems begin for Juan and Wilson at once, though. They can’t unload their booth. Worse, as they learn from an Englishman named Frank (Simon Russell Beale) to whom they pathetically and amateurishly try to sell a jade mask, no dealer in stolen antiquities will buy it: it’s too hot. Their stuff, in short, is worthless (The Frank scenes boast the only camera movement that calls attention to itself: a leisurely tracking shot from Frank, sharing the story of plundered Spanish galleons, to an aquarium).
Museo sags when Ortizgris is offscreen — he’s the Lenny to Bernal’s George — and there’s a well-lit but boring beach interlude in which Juan hooks up with an older bellydancer so he can for a few minutes lose the satchel containing the jade mask. But the rest of Museo is Ruizpalacios’s Gueros approach in excelsior. The performances are solid. His cartoonishly large nose and blue eyes almost too burdensome for his compact frame, Bernal has matured from a fascinating camera object to one of the shrewdest of double take performers. As Frank, Beale pulls a couple of emotional surprises out of his hat.
So devoted is Ruizpalacios’ Mexico to an idea of culture as bulwark against foreign encroachment that the barren display cases at the Museo acquire an aura. Visitors, Wilson observes, want to gawk at the spots where the antiquities used to rest. Attendance doesn’t drop off. Juan understands too late. The last ten minutes of Museo, while not achieving the death’s-head mockery of John Huston’s own story of American plunder of Mexican goods The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, trace the steps of a mama’s boy’s shamed into redress. By Ruizpalacio’s reckoning the system worked.