KVIFF 2018 Review: ‘Museum’ the Fascinating Story of Mexico’s Biggest Heist

KVIFF 2018 Review: ‘Museum’ the Fascinating Story of Mexico’s Biggest Heist

One of the art world’s biggest thefts was carried out on Christmas Eve of 1985, when 124 priceless artifacts were stolen from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City by unknown perpetrators and presumably spirited overseas for sale to private collectors. 

Over three years later, authorities acting on a drug bust made a startling discovery when they recovered almost all of the stolen relics from a suburban home, having never left Mexico City. The thieves were complete amateurs who had stashed the relics in a closet for years, later swapping a few of them for cocaine.

In Museum (Museo), director Alonso Ruizpalacios uses the daring heist as only a stepping stone for what appears to be an entirely fictional narrative that changes far more than just the names of the real-life thieves. 

I’m not so sure how Mexicans will feel about a story that sympathizes with the men responsible for looting their country’s national treasures, some of which have still never been recovered. But Museum is a riveting thriller that also doubles as a fascinating character study, and it might go down as one of the all-time great heist movies. 

Gael García Bernal stars as Juan Nuñez, a college dropout who still lives with his parents (played by Alfredo Castro and Lisa Owen) and is still fascinated by the summer he spent as an intern at the Anthropology Museum helping a photographer document thousands of pre-Columbian relics.

The daring theft central to Museum occurs disarmingly early on in the movie, as Nuñez and the friend he ropes into joining him (Benjamin Wilson, played by Leonardo Ortizgris) hit up the Museum almost on a whim on Christmas eve. 

But the incredible 20-minute heist sequence, impressively staged and shot by director Ruizpalacios, is worth the price of admission alone. Scenes of Nuñez and Wilson sneaking past drunk security guards, prying open an un-alarmed door, melting glass display cases and stuffing as many priceless relics as they can into canvas bags, and making a getaway through air ducts, is taut and suspenseful every step of the way.

Museum really begins, however, after the duo have completed the heist and are left with a future not nearly as well planned. Their journey includes encounters with an Aztec ruins tour guide (Bernardo Velasco), a British art dealer (Simon Russell Beale), and a Mexican porn actress (Leticia Brédice). But how can they move goods that are so hot?

As the pair progress further and further, the reality of what they’ve done begins to sink in. In one of Museum’s most amusing moments, Nuñez’s father asserts that the thieves should be dragged out on the street and killed as he hears new of the crime, unaware that the mastermind behind it is standing right next to him. 

Well staged and structured at every step of the way, Museum cements writer-director Ruizpalacios’ place among the top tier of contemporary Mexican filmmakers in only his second feature outing. He’s greatly aided by an outstanding central performance by Gael García Bernal, who somehow gets us to care about this scoundrel; Ortizgris, too, is excellent as the accomplice reluctantly roped into the incredible crime.

Museum isn’t the true-to-life crime saga that some might want or expect, but it is both a thrilling (and realistic) heist movie and a exceptional character study, and one of the very best films screening at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

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