Alonso Ruizpalacios’ Museo, aside from being a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, is unique in that it considers the precarious morality of history museums. Based on a 1985 heist, in which two thieves made off with 124 artifacts from Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology, it explores the tension between a country’s cultural “heritage” and the indigenous cultures that the country robbed and appropriated.
“This story is a replica of the original,” a title card announces before introducing us to Juan, played by another Mexican national treasure, Gael García Bernal. For him, a childhood love of history – marred at age five when his father turned him onto the concept of colonialist looting – has translated into a tedious job photographing artifacts at the museum. Surrounded by museum guides who explain that certain pieces remain pristine because they “weren’t plundered” before the tombs were officially opened, he soothes his restlessness by smoking weed and plotting to rob the museum. He and his friend Benjamin sneak in at night and walk off with bags full of priceless artifacts. As news of the heist breaks, he hears his father denounce the culprits as needing to be publicly whipped in the town square. Juan is shaken by this disavowal from his own blood, yet carries on.
Their visit to an ancient Mayan city in order to meet with an indigenous tour guide who might be able to help them is fruitless. The site, apart from the magnificent structures themselves, have little of their smaller artifacts left to display – their jewelled masks and priceless relics having long been taken to the National Museum. As pressure mounts for them to turn themselves in, they drives across Mexico seeking anyone interested in buying the now-internationally recognizable items. They finally arrive at the house of a wealthy old Englishman – a stolen goods expert from the land of stolen goods – who, surrounded by artifacts officially sanctioned by the culture ministry, argues that looting is the backbone of the archeology industry, even though, in a morbid twist for Juan, he declares the artifacts too precious to purchase.
The film positions Juan’s heist as equivalent to the constant plundering of indigenous cultures. Devoid of much morality and lusting after riches and adventure, these thefts might leave the stolen items in more reputable hands than others, or gain higher value the more they are seen, but ultimately always end up quite far from what the original culture intended for them. As Juan hauls the artifacts through Mexico, they change in purpose as they exchange hands; an aging actress using a gold comb to cut lines of cocaine backstage, later pouring shots into a hollowed ornament and, after Juan briefly loses the loot, kids use Mayan figurines as toys in their sandcastle. Even as figures of the public imagination, these relics change meaning, as highlighted by the tourists at the Mayan city ask whether the tombs were meant as spaceships
A newsreel early in the film shows the arduous process in bringing these often massive artifacts to the museum, suggesting that these objects are a major source of national pride and identity. Yet, even as everyone Juan encounters expresses their disgust for the theft, no one seems to care much beyond breakfast table conversation. The government, we learn, has been cutting the culture budget, and talk of the stolen goods is often cut short by talk of television stars. No one acknowledges the bitter truth of their current society having brought about the end to the culture they so publicly admire.
Museo does not provide easy answers for the question of colonialism in the name of archeology, or of national and cultural identity. We are reminded throughout the narration that it is impossible to know the truth – or at least the genuine ideals – behind people’s actions. Juan’s opacity regarding his desire to throw his life away keeps him a mystery to his friends and to the viewers, his actions appropriated into the public domain just as the Mayan artifacts present us with a series of questions about their intended use.
Though presented as a breed between a heist film and a character study of Juan’s spiral into existential oblivion, it winds up a study of a nation’s character in how it deals with its own heists. The film understands that underneath all the intellectualism we associate with museums, we are still a bit uncomfortable by the reality that its artifacts were once plundered from their places of origin, and that, even though a curator might attach historical significance and information about a particular item, it is impossible to know what they represented to the people who made it. Weaving together themes of national identity, family disappointment and historical decay, it’s easy to see why it won the Silver Bear for Best Script at the 2018 Berlinale.