Monday, September 10, 2018

Museo: The Great Mexico City Art Heist

Frankly, it is not hard to fathom how a couple of amateur thieves managed to walk off with a spectacular haul of Pre-Columbian art from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The alarm had been broken for three years and the guards also happened to be drunk. Alonso Ruizpalacios largely lets the museum staff off the hook in his free interpretation of the 1985 Christmas Eve heist. He also choses to skip over the thieves’ connection to narcotics traffickers. However, the perps really were slacker veterinary students—that much is true in Ruizpalacios’s fabulistic Museo (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Museo is the sort of film that warns us through voice-overs right from the start that what we are about to witness will be filtered through the narrators’ lies and biases—and it will revisit that theme again just before the moment of truth. For the time being, we watch Juan Nuñez get the germ of the idea while working a crummy summer job at the museum and subsequently refine his scheme while he and his best pal Benjamin Wilson are aimlessly scuffling.

Due to an accelerated renovation schedule, Nuñez and the reluctant Wilson must carry out their plans on Christmas Eve, but that turns into a blessing in disguise. However, it forces Wilson to leave his ailing father during what will presumably be his final Christmas, introducing a continuing source of tension that threatens to divide the friends during their misadventures. Ironically, stealing the priceless artifacts turns out to be the easier part. Fencing the hotter than hot goods is far trickier. However, Nuñez knows a guy in Palenque who knows a guy in Acapulco. Along the way, Nuñez will also meet his great movie lust, Sherezada, an analog for Mexican sex symbol-starlet Princesa Yamal, who was implicated in the 1985 robbery.

Usually, when films alter history it is for the sake of punching up the drama, but Ruizpalacios and co-screenwriter Manuel Alcala do the opposite, covering up all the really seedy and lurid parts (full story here). The absence of the drug and antiquity trafficking ring the real-life Carlos Percher Trevino became associated with is a conspicuous white-washing of history.

On the other hand, Ruizpalacios builds considerably more tension during the big heist sequence than probably the case for Percher and his accomplice, Ramon Sardina Garcia. In place of the wider criminal conspiracies, Ruizpalacios gives us a mediation on th Mexican national character and a rebuke of the prejudice often leveled at indigenous Mexican descendants, such as Wilson.

Gael Garcia Bernal is sufficiently petulant as the entitled Nuñez, but it is Leonardo Ortizgris who really connects as the loyal but conflicted Wilson. It is also great fun to watch Simon Russell Beale steal his scenes as the dodgy art collector, Frank Graves. However, the Museum is the real attraction in all its modernist glory. This was the first time the museum granted limited access, which Ruizpalacios shows it off nicely, from the plundered statues of Aztec gods to grand courtyard. The design team also seamlessly recreated the museum interiors for the extended heist sequence.

Even though it is a rather embarrassing incident for the museum to revisit, the film should spur an increase in tourist traffic. Museo starts out quite compellingly, but it gets lost in its own head for a while once it leaves Mexico City and its Satellite suburb. Ruizpalacios never promises us the truth, we get it, but there is still enough capery stuff to hold most viewers interest. Recommended on balance as an art-house art heist film, Museo opens this Friday (9/14) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center and the Landmark 57 West.