Broadly speaking, the major filmmakers to have come out of Mexico over the last three decades—Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Gerardo Naranjo—are bound by a sense of showmanship. They design their films to astonish, incorporating some flashy camera movement, composition, or edit into every scene. Their work carries on a tradition that can be traced back to Orson Welles, F.W. Murnau, and even Georges Méliès—call it the cinema of attractions, in which practically every shot is meant to assert the medium’s power to transform reality. Museo, the second feature by Mexican writer-director Alonso Ruizpalacios, belongs to this tradition too. Moment for moment, it’s one of the most enjoyable movies around; Ruizpalacios is clearly drunk on the possibilities of filmmaking, and his enthusiasm is infectious. In fact his direction is so engaging that it successfully distracts from his shortcomings as a storyteller. The narrative of Museo pretty much falls apart in its last third, but even then the formal playfulness inspires goodwill. The film serves as a reminder of Welles’s famous assertion that cinema is the greatest train set you could ever give to a boy.
Fittingly, one of Museo‘s major themes is boyishness, as the adult heroes played by Gael García Bernal and Leonardo Ortizgris suggest overgrown children. Juan (Bernal) and Wilson (Ortizgris), who are both around 30, have been best friends since childhood and remain inseparable. Both are studying to become veterinarians and are taking a ridiculously long time to complete their education—Juan has been working toward his degree for nine years and doesn’t seem close to finishing (the filmmakers don’t divulge how long Wilson has been studying). Before the movie begins, the two men decide to rob the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Ruizpalacios, directing a script he wrote with Manuel Alcalá, never gets into their motivation, but he suggests that it comes out of a combination of boredom, a sense of adventure, and a desire to accomplish something—anything—in their lives.
He also suggests that Juan has a strong personal attachment to the museum. Ruizpalacios flashes back early in the film to show him visiting the site as a boy with his father, then cuts to an elaborate Steadicam shot that snakes through a group of schoolchildren visiting the place in the present to find Juan working there as a security guard. Wilson, who narrates the film, explains that Juan took the job in order to pay for his marijuana, thereby undercutting the sense of wonder engendered by the fancy camerawork. When the film gets to its stunning credits sequence—which features close-ups of ancient artifacts set to bombastic orchestral music—Ruizpalacios has already set an complex tone that’s half sincere and half ironic.
The film maintains this tone as it introduces the setting and other characters. Presenting Juan’s family home (where he still lives with his well-to-do parents), Ruizpalacios favors expansive wide-screen compositions cluttered with period details. Museo takes place in 1985, and Ruizpalacios approaches the production design as though he were creating a museum piece, arranging knickknacks generously around the frames and often cutting to fetishistic close-ups of such archaic technology as rotary phones, VHS tapes, and Atari video games. He also likes to track or zoom into certain details (like Juan talking on a pay phone), and these devices create a sense of immersion in the past. Moreover, they draw us into Juan’s point of view, though Ruizpalacios likes to interrupt these appeals to subjectivity by cutting to objective shots or overlaying narration that refers to things Juan doesn’t know. Such techniques heighten the film’s complex aesthetic, creating an environment that viewers can enter through multiple avenues.
The film’s first climax is a lengthy sequence that plunges viewers into Juan’s dysfunctional home life. Set during an extended family gathering on Christmas Eve, the passage finds Ruizpalacios switching to a documentary-style approach, with handheld camerawork and jumpy editing that communicate a sense of chaos. Viewers come to understand, through snatches of dialogue and the general milieu, Juan’s complicated relationships with his four sisters, his parents, and his uncle (another black sheep of the family). These people all love him, though they’ve long been exasperated by his slacker lifestyle. Ruizpalacios returns to Juan’s perspective with a graceful tracking shot toward him as he sits at the dinner table, a spotlight gradually rising over him; the change in perspective points to his alienation from the rest of his family as well as his fixation on robbing the museum. It’s not long before he decides to move up the robbery to this night (he and Wilson originally planned their heist for closer to New Year’s Day); before he leaves, though, he inadvertently shows his nieces and nephews where their parents hid the Christmas gifts, ruining the holiday.
The subsequent heist is the movie’s centerpiece, and it represents a trove of cinematic invention. Employing the same music he used in the credits sequence, Ruizpalacios follows Juan and Wilson as they climb over the museum gate, run across the courtyard (the camera briefly turns upside down as they do), and enter the building. A wide shot of the museum’s exterior throws into relief the close-ups that follow, which show the array of tools the men use to break open display cases, the beautiful Mesoamerican artifacts they steal, and their astonished reactions to their own cunning. This sequence, in its intricate detail, recalls the famous heist of Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955), and it’s just about as suspenseful. An escape through the museum’s ventilator shafts evokes numerous prison escape movies, though Ruizpalacios undercuts the allusion with a subjective shot of Juan hallucinating—he thinks he sees the Mayan king Pakal watching him in the shaft. Soon after, the director undercuts the men’s sense of bravado with another wide shot, this time of a collection of monuments in a town square where Wilson stops to pee on his way home.
This shot reminds us of how small these characters really are, and the remainder of Museo is essentially a string of variations on this insight, following Juan and Wilson as they lope toward defeat. The film’s second act finds the men traveling to the jungle, where they meet a connection who promises to introduce them to a British art dealer who may be interested in purchasing the stolen artifacts. The characters loiter around the jungle until the dealer’s ready to meet them, occasioning some impressive shots of the Mayan pyramids and surprisingly lyrical passages of time being wasted. From there, the characters venture to Acapulco to see the dealer; their meeting inspires the film’s single most impressive passage, an elaborate tracking shot lasting several minutes that begins as a wide shot and ends as a close-up of Juan. This shot charts the men’s fall from confidence, as the dealer realizes they have no idea what they’ve gotten into and calls them out on their naivete. Played by Simon Russell Beale in a memorably testy turn, the dealer explains that the artifacts (the theft of which has been reported by news outlets around the world) are simply too hot to sell. Juan and Wilson have no choice but to return them to the museum or hang on to them indefinitely.
As the protagonists lose their sense of purpose, so too does Museo. The film flounders for about another 40 minutes as the characters stumble from one misadventure to another. Ruizpalacios still stages impressive set pieces as the movie winds to its conclusion—especially thrilling is a sequence in a oceanside bar, where Juan gets into a fight with several men to defend the honor of a belly dancer. Shot in another extended take and lit by a single spotlight, the fight showcases some nifty action choreography, suggesting that Ruizpalacios—after dabbling in realistic family drama, the heist film, and Malick-style reverie—wanted to try his hand at a kung fu picture as well. It also creates the impression that the director was having so much fun that he couldn’t bear to end the movie, and given how entertaining Museo is, you can’t really blame him. v