Vitagraph Films/128 min.
“Why ruin a good story with the truth?” states a character in Museo, the newest film from Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios. It tells the story of two men, Juan and Ben, who pull off the largest heist of cultural artifacts in Mexico’s history.
Juan, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, is a stoner with seemingly no aim in life, but ironically, has (no pun intended) high ambitions. While working at Mexico’s Museum of Anthropology, he gets the bright idea to steal over one hundred Mesoamerican artifacts from their display cases, and sell them for profit. To do this, he drags along his friend Ben, played by Leonardo Ortizgris. Ben is the passive to Juan’s active, and also serves as the film’s narrator.
Early on in the film, we learn that both men face crisis in their family life. Juan lives at home with his mother, father, and sister, and Ben is caring for ailing father. The legacy of family and shared cultural history, as well as multiple parallels with death, is an ever-present theme in the film. It should also be mentioned that this, in every way, shape, and form, a very Mexican film. From the attitude towards English speakers (you have to be Mexican to understand), the idea of inheritance of indigenous ancestry while at the same time marginalizing indigenous peoples, to the exploration of Mexico that the plot takes.
A dramedy with layers, it is filled with equal parts cinematic restraint and flare, with the film divided along both thematic and cinematic lines. Although I won’t detail specifics, the first half of the film deals with the setup and pulling off of the heist, while the second deals with the socio-cultural and familial aftermath.
The color palette of the first half of the film can best be described as pastel, especially in daytime, with the writing accompanying those scenes being appropriately lighthearted or full of jabs. Ben, for instance, extols that Juan works at the museum as a way to pay for his pot, and the idea to steal over one hundred Mesoamerican artifacts comes on at little more than a whim, not to mention the jokes that Juan’s family make about him for living with his mother and father for so many years.
Ruizpalacios makes limited stylistic use of the camera in this part of the film, preferring to use simple mediums and wides to fit enough characters onscreen so that we can see them talk. But I started to notice a recurring use of close up on Bernal – and I mean it is close up – that caught my eye. These sorts of shots are few and far between, like Ruizpalacios is saving up his more eccentric tastes for later.
And that is very much the case. About an hour into the film, I was wondering where the rest of the plot and characters would end up. And I was not disappointed. I found that, as the film goes on, nearly every aspect of it is heightened (with even the colors getting a more realistic feel to them). Not to say that the comedic first half isn’t as good, but that the themes that Ruizpalacios (and fellow scriptwriter Manuel Alcala) explore go pretty deep into culture, responsibility, and stewardship.
As the film progresses, Ruizpalacios goes all out with the camera in many ways, including a sequence reliant entirely on visual storytelling that is tense and riveting. He specializes in seemingly still shots, as well as meta visuals that are surprising but well done.
On a personal note, I’m glad that Ruizpalacios makes an effort to shine a light on the more diverse aspects of Mexican society. Although the main cast is mainly made up of white or mestizo actors (the majority of Mexico’s population is “mixed-race”) Ruizpalacios made the wise decision to incorporate Mayan characters, who, while supportive, still make for interesting characters and provide context for the wider cultural aspects the film speaks to. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the black population of Mexico, which is essentially (although probably not intentionally) brushed off with a single image and a patronizing remark.This is a Mexican film made for a Mexican audience, with all the positives and negatives that come with colonial baggage, but it still manages to communicate a riveting story with writing both comedic and thought-provoking, acting that is both funny and touching, and directing that takes the film to new heights.