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Five Cent Cine (At Home): Museo

He did it, but why?

It’s convenient and often useful to classify films: this one’s a buddy film, that one’s a rom-com, another’s a chick flick, and so on. That game doesn’t work for “Museo,” a rich stew of genres. It’s a buddy film, a father-son film and a family drama, with a dash of documentary and a nod to suburban angst, all circulating around an entertaining (if not entirely believable) caper-heist, and its aftermath. Better still, it foregrounds the issue of causation yet offers no easy answers — and it stays away from the bête noir of many films featuring flawed protagonists: the therapeutic.


At the center of this story based on the 1985 robbery of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, is Juan Nuñez, sensitively and credibly portrayed by Gael Garcia Bernal (“Y Tu Mamá Tambien,” “The Motorcycle Diaries”). Juan is a troubled, sullen, passive-aggressive (and sometimes just aggressive) young man in his twenties, fitfully studying for a degree in veterinary medicine, at odds with a demanding and judgmental family that mocks him as a failure. He’s also more than a little bored with the round of life in Ciudad Satélite (“Satellite City”), a far-flung suburb of Mexico City.

Much of the action takes place around Christmas, offering Juan ample opportunity to play the bad boy.

Much of the action takes place around Christmas, offering Juan ample opportunity to play the bad boy. On one occasion, he’s irritated that he has inherited from his grandfather the job of playing the family Santa; on another, exhibiting a visceral distaste for inauthenticity, he shows the younger children where “Santa” has hidden their wrapped gifts and urges them to open their presents then and there.

Juan’s only companion is devoted follower Benjamin Wilson (Mexican, too, despite the name, played by Leonardo Ortizgris), a pet groomer and the film’s narrator. There’s a hint that Wilson’s loyalty is payback for assistance that Juan rendered years ago, and that would help explain Juan’s selfishness, his disregard for Wilson’s feelings and needs. Juan dominates the film, and the viewer cannot help but root for him. Yet he is not always likeable and not always ethical.

Juan seeks excitement, admires the daredevils who dive from ocean cliffs, and courts death on the highway while disregarding Wilson’s terror. But the bold, “Topkapi”-like theft he plans and attempts with his buddy apparently has a deeper meaning than the desire for high-risk thrills. That meaning is foreshadowed in the film’s documentary opening: 1964 footage of an enormous statue of the Aztec god Tlaloc being transported from its original site to Mexico’s new National Museum of Anthropology. Lacking a solid sense of identity and place himself, Juan is disturbed at the displacement and objectification of the statues and other sacred objects that reside in the museum. As a museum intern, he watches them being isolated and photographed, distanced from the sacred.

Even so — and here we encounter the film’s admirable complexity and nuance — Juan’s concept of the sacred is gradually revealed to be shallow, perhaps naive. He makes a symbolic nighttime offering to the gods at a Mayan pyramid, and his desire to “liberate” artifacts from the museum seems genuine. But his subsequent treatment and use of the “priceless” liberated objects — cleaning one with a toothbrush, using others to build sand castles or do a line of coke–reveals ignorance and thoughtlessness. Although he shows concern that the artifacts might end up in a British museum (a fate even worse than a Mexican one), his desire to sell the objects and reap a cash reward easily overpowers whatever scruples he might have. Without giving away the ending, one can say that Juan remains ambivalent — and to the viewer, refreshingly opaque.

The strengths of “Museo” include its combination of serious themes with a light- heartedness, of realistic filming with campy techniques. The two buddies are both funny and serious, clever and hapless, worthy of the viewer’s investment and yet laughable. When they break into the National Museum, Juan and Wilson are shown in ironic, posed freeze-frames as they steal 140 objects under the guards’ noses. Museo closes with more irony, and a curious reality: the theft, which shone a light on the museum’s wholly inadequate security measures, dramatically increased attendance.

Director Alonso Ruiz Palacios and co-writer Manuel Alcalá won Best Screenplay at The Berlin Film Festival for this first Spanish-language YouTube original.

Date: 2018

Director (and co-writer): Alonso Ruiz Palacio

Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Leonardo Ortizgris, Simon Russell Beale, and Alfredo Castro.

Museo ★★★ ½ (out of 4 stars)

Subtitled in English; Language: Spanish

Other Awards: Nominated for more than 25, won 7, including Best Screenplay at the Berlin Film Festival

Runtime: 128 minutes

This “streamer” review was originally published 10.18.2018

Availability:  For rent or purchase, Amazon, Apple TV and elsewhere; see JustWatch here.

See all Five Cent Cine reviews by 2 Film Critics

Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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