'Museum' ('Museo'): Film Review | Berlin 2018

Courtesy of Alejandra Carvajal
A cinematically exciting meeting point of the grandiose, suspenseful and pathetic.

Gael Garcia Bernal steals a priceless Aztec treasure in Alonso Ruizpalacios’ offbeat Mexican caper.

In Alonso Ruizpalacios’ Museum (Museo), two young losers from Satellite City, Mexico, tangle with the ancient gods when they pull off an amateur robbery in an archeological museum. After the director’s eye-catching first feature, Gueros, set during Mexico's student protests, an audience has already formed for his sophomore effort, an offbeat but very edge-of-seat caper film, making a strong bow in Berlin competition. It doesn’t disappoint, especially with engaging star Gael Garcia Bernal looking more like Alain Delon than ever in the main role.

Apart from its startling ability to match the amusing/infuriating incompetence of its thieving duo with scenes of serious tension and suspense, Museum has a pleasing aura of historical melancholy that recalls Shadi Abdel Salam’s anti-tomb-raider film, The Mummy. A bit closer to home, Chano Urueta’s 1939 Mexican tragedy The Night of the Mayans is frequently referenced, especially its eerie soundtrack composed by Silvestre Revueltas and retouched here by Tomas Barreiro.

To step back and look at the big picture, Ruizpalacios and Manuel Alcala’s screenplay portrays Mexico as a museum filled with priceless relics from the past, plundered by idiots until it is little more than a replica of the original. Yes, it’s sad, but also pretty funny at the hands of Juan (Garcia Bernal) and his faithful sidekick Benjamin Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris), two middle-class boys from good families who have a plan.

It’s sometime after the '60s; the kids are playing Pacman and statues of pre-Colombian gods are being snatched from their native sites to fill the new National Museum of Anthropology. Juan, a veterinary student and the son of a doctor, is something of a goofball. On Christmas Eve, he sneaks off from the family celebration and, bullying his army of one, Wilson, into accompanying him, breaks into the museum by picking the front-door lock. There’s no alarm. While the guards make holiday toasts in another part of the sprawling building, the boys blow open glass cases and pinch a priceless collection of Aztec art. With Damian Garcia's shadowy retro lighting setting the mood, this extended scene is full of breathless tension, despite the fact (or because) they take their good time about it, leisurely gawking at the exhibits. As they finally escape with their loot through a ventilation shaft, for a moment Juan imagines he sees Pakal, the Mayan king, staring down at him and trembles.

Back home, Juan stuffs the booty in his closet and goes to bed. What made them do it? Was it the money, a lark, to impress their friends? Wilson went along out of obedience to Juan, but Juan has no answer. As his ne’er-do-well uncle warns him, he’s the kind who can’t resist walking near the monster pit and screwing up his life.

But that face-to-face with reality is still far down the line. With the exhilaration of success still upon them and Daddy’s nicked car keys in Juan's pocket, they set out for the Mayan archeological site of Palenque in the Chiapas to fence their stolen goods. But their contact, the savvy tour guide Bosco (Bernardo Velasco), wants nothing to do with them. With the entire country’s police force after them, it isn’t going to be easy to sell their treasure.

Yibran Asuad’s editing keeps the action moving swiftly with barely a pause to catch one’s breath before the next madness. A meeting with a rich British collector (Simon Russell Beale) in Acapulco goes badly, and Juan becomes more irresponsible with each frustration. He ends up brawling in a nightclub and reveling on the beach with Sherezada Rios (Leticia Bredice), the aging star of The Difficult Life of an Easy Woman. Quoting American shaman Carlos Castaneda, he indulges in some very Mexican fantasies about death, invincibility and warriorhood – then stupidly acts them out by switching off his headlights on a pitch-black highway. Meanwhile, the priceless artifacts in his bag are turning into a ball and chain.

The story is narrated, off and on, by tag-along Wilson, but Garcia Bernal is in full control of the film. He is at his best in a wrenching head-on confrontation with his father (the dignified and principled Alfredo Castro) in which he is helpless to defend his own stupidity. Ruizpalacios takes a laid-back approach to the basically satisfying last act, which avoids putting a message in lights and focuses instead on Juan.  

Production companies: Panorama Global, Detalle Films, Ring Cine, Distant Horizon, Serendipity Point Films
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Leonardo Ortizgris, Alfredo Castro, Simon Russell Beale, Lisa Owen, Bernardo Velasco, Ilse Salas, Leticia Bredice
Director: Alonso Ruizpalacios
Screenwriters: Manuel Alcala, Alonso Ruizpalacios
Producers: Gerardo Gatica, Alberto Muffelmann, Manuel Alcala, Ramiro Ruiz
Director of photography: Damian Garcia
Production designer: Sandra Cabriada
Costume designer: Malena De La Riva
Editor: Yibran Asuad
Music: Tomas Barreiro
Casting director: Bernardo Velasco
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition)
World sales: Distant Horizon

126 minutes