Museo review: On Christmas Eve 1985, over a hundred pre-Hispanic items were stolen from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. It wasn’t until three years after that the authorities caught the men who did. Much to their surprise, the men responsible were not a highly-skilled antique trafficking group of professional thieves. Instead, they were two university drop-outs from middle-class suburban families. It remains one of the largest single thefts of precious objects in history.

Museo review
Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Museo review [TIFF]

Museo throws two of these surprise thieves into the spotlight in a film which very openly plays a little fast and loose with most of the facts (the opening claims this film to be a replica of the events, not unlike the objects that were put in place of the stolen artifacts themselves). It is a replica though that has a great deal of life in it, one which offers both an offbeat heist caper and a sympathetic look on two characters who are, when it really comes down to it, quite sad and pathetic.

While the film is narrated by one of the accomplices, Benjamin Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris), the narrative very much belongs to Gael Garcia Bernal’s Juan. Both of the men are veterinary students who are struggling to graduate. Benjamin is looking after his ill father, so that gives him clear motivation as to why he would want to pull off such a heist beyond devotion to his friend, Juan. But Juan himself remains something of an enigma, his motives never truly clear. The film is more fascinating as a result.

Director Ruizpalacios paints a rich picture of Juan’s family life. It’s chaotic, loud, everyone’s done something wrong to someone, and Juan always seems to be the one who gets teased and picked on, largely because he still lives at home with his parents while his siblings and cousins have gone on to have families of their own. Is his choice to pull of this heist an attempt to be seen as something more than a failure in his family’s eyes? Juan won’t say. Neither do his actions lead to anything particularly positive, as he and Benjamin soon come to realise that they have no idea what to do with the artifacts that they now possess.

Museo review
Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

The heist itself is not the centerpiece of the film, as it occurs fairly early on into the proceedings. The sequence though is exceptionally stylish. It’s visually inventive, slick, tense and funny, feeling like the work of De Palma or Soderbergh on their very best days. The rest of the film becomes more of a road movie, as Juan and Benjamin struggle to find a buyer for their loot. These moments aren’t quite as engrossing as the heist itself or moments with Juan’s family, but they make a point of demonstrating just quite how ill-prepared these two guys are at attempting to enter the world of black market antique trafficking.

Leonardo Ortizgris offers a performance that is very sympathetic, with Benjamin’s situation very much being the one of the two that really could do with a big payout. Yet he continues to follow his friend Jaun, despite how clueless his friend often shows himself to be. Ortizgris more than sells this, blindly following his friend with a worried furrowed brow throughout. Gael Garcia Bernal is fantastic (as he always is) in the lead. It helps that his face remains as youthful and as doe-eyed as ever, allowing for Juan’s naivety to be all that more convincing and crafting him as a character worthy of your sympathy, even if he is often the one to blame.

Director Alonso Ruizpalacios makes a statement in his sophomore effort, a statement which colours him as a director with an eye for artistic shots, tight editing and moments which allow characters to breathe, as well as proving very adept at crafting a set piece. He seems to be very ingrained in the stylings of 70’s New Hollywood, in that he is a director clearly having a blast playing with camera angles, editing techniques, and movement. He may slightly over-play the artifice of it all at times, but there is no doubt that this is a director of exceptional skill and vision.

Museo is a greatly appealing, bizarrely touching, fun and involving crime caper-come-character piece. This story of a notorious heist that ended up being a little more inept than the authorities were probably hoping for, maybe a replica, but it is also one-of-a-kind.

Museo review by Andrew Gaudion, Septemeber 2018.

Museo was reviewed at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Click here for all of our coverage.

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