Synopsis: Two young men decide to carry out a daring museum heist in Mexico. But things are never straightforward as they seem – neither before or even after the heist.
One of the biggest surprises of the Berlinale official competition, Alonso Ruizpalacios’s MUSEUM is a knockout. Offering much more than a traditional heist film, this is smart and effective storytelling and a unique examination of the Mexican identity.
Juan (Gael García Bernal) and Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris) are two friends facing daily challenges that are becoming too much to handle. They are not poor nor in need of financial support. They are not from dysfunctional families. And they are not even on drugs or have been victims of any sort of abuse. And that’s why the story is unique its own way – why would two men who seemingly have everything carry on such an insane heist on Mexico’s most prominent museum? For Juan, it’s a gamble that will define his own identity – at a time when he is struggling to create his own in a house that is too traditional, safe and abiding by the pride of a nation that deeply cherishes his past. For Wilson, whose financial situation is slightly worse than Juan, this heist represents an opportunity to gain extra cash so he can take better care of his father – but it’s ultimately a risky and audacious adventure he hesitantly accepts after taking a leap of faith.
As the two carry out an impressive heist – the story is based on an outrageous true story – the film becomes a fantastic examination of Mexican identity yesterday and today. Though the events in the film take place over 30 years ago, the film handles it in a way that’s both smart and resonant. Mexico is a nation in transition, as new generation emerge completely oblivious and indifferent towards their country’s heritage and history. The harsh present, full of financial and societal burdens, constantly clashes with a rich past of civilization. As such, the new generation is struggling to find its own footing and does not necessarily find any sort of tolerance for those willing to deviate or not abide by tradition. Juan represents a fascinating character because his struggles are those of identity and self-validation. Not only do his views constantly clash with his family members, he feels an urge to carry an assault on everything his country cherishes and holds so dear – without being able to truly explain his reasons.
The artifacts in the film, stolen from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico, are more than just valuable objects representing the country’s rich history, Ruizpalacios uses them as metaphors for a shifting identity that is a mix of anger towards colonial suppression and the values on which the traditional generation is clinging to. Two particular standout scenes translate this metaphor so well. In the first, a group of Mexican children take the bag of stolen artifacts and use it as toys by the beach, totally unaware of their history and importance. In the second, a group of tourists visit the museum after it was robbed and marvel at the empty boxes where the artifacts were once placed and are now considered to be stolen by ‘foreign’ traffickers.
As Juan, Gael García Bernal excels in a fantastic role that perfectly showcases the actor’s talent and dramatic chops, while Leonardo Ortizgris impresses in a nuanced role that effectively shifts between comedy and drama. The dialogue is one of the film’s strongest points, and the family scenes in the beginning and end add excellent, grounded and believable dramatic tension and help contextualize Bernal and Ortizgris, which leads to a superbly engaging and utterly convincing story that transcends heist movie limitations and offers a complete and satisfying experience for viewers.
Adding to the film’s lively pace and engaging story is Yibran Asuad’s fantastic editing that innovatively utilizes sound, silence and quick cuts to immerse audiences in the story’s multiple tones. The soundtrack heightens the tension and the voice over (by Orztizgris) is perfectly fitting to the story.
Verdict: Filled with energy, color, emotion and superb direction, editing and screenplay, MUSEUM is a great testament to Latin American cinema and one of the best films of the Berlin Film Festival. Offering a thoughtful commentary on the ever-changing Mexican identity and the generational divide, MUSEUM should be a strong foreign language contender if submitted and should have strong commercial prospects around the world.