The year’s best and strangest and most searching heist movie, Alonso Ruizpalacios’ Museo, among many other things, offers an inspired inversion of the fantasy of Indiana Jones. Its centerpiece is a breathless break-in at the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, as two 30-ish suburbanites, played by Gael Garcia Bernal and Leonardo Ortizgris, attempt to loot artifacts from what is known as the Mayan room. Ruizpalacios shot in the real museum, a monumental location as arresting, in its shadows and sweeping concrete aprons, as the sites plundered by most movie tomb raiders.
The robbery crackles with awed suspense, alternating between reverence for the objects to be stolen, silent terror that something might go wrong and a painstaking interest in the tools and techniques of theft. The sequence kicks off with a bravura, beguiling shot looking down from above at a leafy wall the pair must climb over, and then the camera tilts some 90 degrees to track, upside down, their dash across a courtyard. As they lift away the glass case housing their first prize, the two are framed, cheekily, in profile, the case between them, the action practical and momentous at once. The moment is a delicious parody of Harrison Ford and John Rhys-Davies heaving the Ark of the Covenant out of its pit. The heist continues, all night, its scope communicated to us in quick flashes of images, the participants’ memory rendered as something like a photographer’s contact sheet.
It’s thrilling. And that’s just the most crowd-pleasing chunk of an ambitious, restless film that more than fulfills the promise of 2014’s Güeros, Ruizpalacios’ audacious debut. Museo’s 128 minutes mostly concern questions of character and history, of who owns the past and what to make of the present. The break-in happens early. The thieves go after the Mayan artifacts hoping to sell them, and because mastermind Juan (Bernal) has been fascinated with them since his days as an intern at the museum, but mostly because they’re bored, expecting more out of life than they’re willing to put into it. (In this it echoes American Animals, this year’s other ambitious heist film, albeit one I found troubling and loathsome.) Juan and Benjamin (Ortizgris) are veterinary students living with their mothers in the suburban enclave Satellite City; in one glittering reverie, we see them urinate against the Torres de Satélite, the gold and red and blue tower sculptures erected in the late 1950s as the gateway to their district of Mexico City — and a new age of prosperity. Suburban prosperity, of course, begets suburban ennui, and Ruizpalacios finds brittle comedy in an early set piece of Juan bored out of his skull at a family Christmas celebration.
Ruizpalacios and Manuel Alcalá, who co-wrote the script with the director, have based their story on a real theft from the 1980s, but they’ve felt free to invent incidents and conflicts to dig into the themes that most resonated with them. Director of photography Damian Garcia contributes vivid, expressive work, shot on 35mm, suggesting not just the look of the 1980s but also the textures. They follow the leads to Mayan temples in Palenque and into the swank mansion of an English relics dealer, the thieves both caught up in and confounded by their place in their culture.
Movie stars don’t come much more handsome than Bernal, yet at every point his character is insulted, by family and strangers, for his shortness or his light skin; eventually, as he finds he can’t sell hot Mayan relics, Juan sinks into drinking and drugs in Acapulco, terrified not just that investigators might be closing in but at the truth that he bears priceless cultural heritage on his back. His dilemma becomes intensely moving: He’s shouldering history and has no idea what to do next.