Museo (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Two museum thieves in a big trouble

Mexican film “Museo”, which won the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay at the Berlin International Film Festival early in this year, is about two pathetic criminals who somehow manage to steal a bagful of priceless artifacts from one of the most prominent museums in their country. As far as I later came to learn from other reviews, the movie is a heavily fictional version of an infamous real-life incident in 1985, so I have no idea on how much it is actually close to its source of inspiration, but I can tell you at least that the movie is a deliciously offbeat comedy thriller which deftly mixes vibrant style and deadpan humor to our constant amusement.

The heroes of the movie are two lads named Juan Nuñez (Gael García Bernal) and Benjamin Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris), and the first act of the movie focuses on their respective family lives which do not give them much cheer on Christmas Eve. While tasked with an unenviable job of being a Santa Claus for others instead of his recently deceased grandfather, Juan also has to spend Christmas Eve evening with his family members, and he does not particularly want to spend time with many of them because, like his doctor father, they constantly remind him of how much he has disappointed his family while remained to be stuck in his parent’s house as your average slacker.

In case of Benjamin, he has lived only with his father in their house, but his father has recently been quite ill, and it looks like that is the main reason why he decides to participate in what his friend Juan has planned after he worked for several months at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. When it turns out that they should execute their heist as soon as possible during Christmas Eve night, Juan and Benjamin hurriedly prepare for that, and the movie gives us several wryly humorous moments as observing how sloppy they are in their final preparation step.

Once Juan and Benjamin manage to get inside the museum without being caught by its security guards, the movie becomes tenser and more serious, though it continues to generate more amusement from how its two heroes somehow succeed despite their apparent incompetence. All they have are hammers, nails, several strands of wire, and a certain kind of chemical, but, as cheerfully and succinctly shown via the efficient staccato editing by Yibran Assaud, they successfully steal lots of invaluable artifacts including a jade stone mask, and they also luckily come to find a way out when they subsequently find themselves locked inside the museum.

Of course, as announced by a brief disturbing moment when Juan momentarily sees a Mayan god right in front of him, the situation becomes quite more serious for him and Benjamin when everybody in Mexico comes to learn of their crime in the next morning. As reflected by an angry comment from Juan’s father, their crime causes a national furor beyond their imagination, and the movie later makes an ironic point as observing that their crime leads to a lot more visitors to the museum than before.

And things get more absurd when Juan and Benjamin try to sell their stolen artifacts as quickly as possible. They have a friend who works as a local tour guide at the Mayan archeological site of Palenque in the Chiapas, and that friend may connect them to anyone willing to buy these stolen artifacts from them. They soon drive to Palenque by a car belonging to Juan’s father without telling him anything at all, and the movie serves us another amusing moment when they come across a group of soldiers at one point, who do not suspect them much even after looking into their luggage.

When Juan and Benjamin finally arrive in Palenque, their friend is handling a bunch of tourists, and there is a humorous scene where Juan deliberately interrupts that friend’s perfunctory lecture with a silly theory based on one of the well-known Mayan artifacts in Palenque. I once encountered that outrageous theory when I read a book on numerous wonders around the world during my childhood years, and I must tell you that I was a bit tickled by that funny scene while also delighted to see that famous artifact again.

Eventually, Juan and Benjamin come to have a private meeting with Frank Graves (Simon Russell Beale), a British art collector who instantly sees through them right from the beginning. As Graves talks for a while about an international dispute over the rights to a sunken Spanish galleon containing gold worth $500 million, the movie baffles us a bit as the camera temporarily focuses on what is inside the aquarium in Graves’ living room, but then it slowly dials up the level of comic intensity as Graves makes his point very clearly to Juan and Benjamin, who belatedly come to realize that what they stole is so famous that nobody wants to get involved with them at all.

While the movie mostly observes its two heroes from the distance, its two lead performers keep holding our attention through their good performance. While Gael García Bernal is compelling as usual without downplaying his character’s pathetic side at all, his co-star Leonardo Ortizgris complements his co-star well as also functioning as the narrator of the film, and Simon Russell Beale, Bernardo Velasco, and Alfredo Castro are also fine in their respective supporting roles.

“Museo” is the second feature film by director/writer Alonso Ruizpalacios, who drew many critics’ attention via his first feature film “Güeros” (2014). Although I have not seen that movie yet, it is clear from “Museo” that he is a talented filmmaker, and I admire its technical aspects including the cinematography by Damián Garcia and the score by Tomás Barreiro. The overall result is a lot different from what I expected, but I am satisfied on the whole even though I felt a bit impatient during my viewing due to its rather slow narrative pacing, and I am willing to revisit it again savoring its skillful moments more.

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