On Christmas Eve in 1985, two university dropouts broke into the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and stole nearly 150 of Mexico’s most treasured pre-Hispanic artifacts. Among the looted objects were a famed Aztec obsidian jar in the shape of a monkey and the jade death mask of an ancient Mayan ruler. In his latest film, Museo, Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios constructs a slightly absurd, fictionalized account of this stunning heist.
In Ruizpalacios’ version of the story, the thieves are Juan Nuñez (Gael García Bernal), a fine-boned man-child who hasn’t quite finished his veterinary degree, and his best friend Benjamin Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris), whose big eyes and flair for indecision make him seem like an abandoned puppy who hangs out with Nuñez because he can’t find any other friends; you feel a little sorry for him. Both in their 30s, they live in Ciudad Satélite, a fairly vanilla upper middle class urban development that skirts the edge of Mexico City. Neither of them are going anywhere in life, a fact that Wilson seems to have made peace with, but Nuñez hasn’t — he dreams of escaping the cyclical banality of life around him. And so, borrowing his father’s car, Nuñez convinces Wilson to sneak into the National Museum of Anthropology with him, solder off glass cases, and steal some of the museum’s prized artifacts, which they later plan to sell.
Robbing the museum is Nuñez’s ticket out of nothingville. But it is also Ruizpalacios’ way of exposing the myth-making that takes place around us — as Joan Didion pointed out, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The National Museum of Anthropology, a concrete, palatial sprawl of a building that occupies prime real estate in Chapultepec Park, draws on pre-Hispanic objects to write a grandiose history of what identity, patriotism, and heritage should look like. And yet Nuñez and Wilson steal from it so easily.
Mexico is a road-tripper’s dream, with a turn down any highway revealing landscapes that are more than easy on the eye. Nuñez and Wilson get their wish: they escape Satélite, still in Nuñez’s father’s car, and drive to the Mayan ruins of Palenque in the south, before heading to Acapulco in the west. These, too, are sites that could win Pulitzers for their storytelling: Palenque is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, while 82% of the people living around it live in poverty; Acapulco thrived mid-century as part of a state-sponsored drive to develop tourism, but today its façade of glamour could use another coat of paint.
Even Ciudad Satélite delves into the grand narrative of the state: best known for the Torres de Satélite that dot its entrance as you approach from Mexico City, the five primary-colored monuments were designed by Luis Barragán and Mathias Goeritz to assert a sense of modernity during the Mexican economy’s heyday of the 1940s to the 1970s. After Nuñez and Wilson make a getaway from the museum with their stolen goods, they stop to relieve themselves at the base of the towers. It’s hard not to feel a perverse sense of amusement at the sculptures’ fate: at the end of the day, even the most carefully and beautifully constructed monuments can be reduced to a bathroom.
Museo is a film about our delusions of grandeur — on a national scale, an artistic scale, and a personal scale. Throughout the film, Wilson, as the narrator, muses that no one knows why humans do the things that they do. Even as a director, Ruizpalacios can only speculate on the motives for Nuñez and Wilson’s actions — perhaps they stem from a yearning to participate in something bigger than themselves? Nuñez may be cynical, but even he falls for the patriotic ideals so carefully constructed by the National Museum of Anthropology (a news broadcast in the film does, after all, pronounce the unknown thieves “enemies of our history and heritage”). He complains that the pieces were taken from the various sites and cultures — the Maya, the Zapotec, the Olmec et al — to which they belonged in the first place, but he balks at selling to a British dealer. “They don’t even speak Spanish!” he hisses. Then he feels bad about disrespecting his country’s cultural patrimony, and begins to have nightmares about the ghost of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, a Mayan king whose mask he stole. When they get to Palenque, he tries to seek redemption through an offering, burying one of the artifacts just as the sunlight cracks over the Lacandon Jungle at dawn.
We tell ourselves stories, but these stories are fragile. They are, perhaps, also a little futile: why even bother, this film seems to ask, if they’re all going to fall apart anyway?
Museo is playing at select locations, including Laemmle’s Ahrya Fine Arts Theatre in Los Angeles and elsewhere.