Based on a spectacular 1965 museum robbery by two students in Mexico City, “Museo,” begins with the voice of Juan, a character played nuance by nuance by Gael García Bernal. Juan has come to the bitter, if faulty conclusion that “we don’t know how things begin, only how they end.” We meet him as a man-child languishing in the lap of relative luxury. He has never for a single moment felt at home with the adult world he inherits, nor its host of nostrums and unspoken assumptions transmitted through a complex of family and class relations. For Juan, these are reduced to crude charges and countercharges leveled during post-dinner “sobremesas,” at family holiday gatherings.
An inheritance emblematic of the dilemma afflicting some in the Mexican ruling class (representing the ultimate adult domain from Juan’s social perspective), is its appropriation of indigenous cultural artifacts. The most valuable of these is the mask of the Mayan god Tláloc, on view at the entrance to Mexico City’s Museo de Antropología built in 1964. One might say that it is the “Calvario” (cross to bear), of that social layer, one of many iterations of the white man’s burden weighing heavily on the conscience of its left-liberal members.
Juan’s belly burns with the urge, elaborated by a scheme, to steal the prized piece and others, from what he considers a collection (hypocritically) claimed as a jewel in the crown of Mexico’s national patrimony. On a less lofty and more practical level, he needs an accomplice he can truly rely on to pull off his imagined heist, and engages in a “trust” exercise with his friend Bernardo to audition him for the role. It goes slightly awry when Juan flinches. The exercise is an omen foreshadowing which of the two friends is the more untrustworthy, as well as the outcome of the end game that no one can know (except perhaps the audience.)
Bernardo, whose circumstances are considerably more straitened than his co-conspirator’s, is more of a homebody than an adventurer. He is in the thrall of his single-minded compadre with grandiose fantasies, but requires no trust exercise to, by instinct, appoint himself auditor of Juan’s project. When it comes time to execute it, Bernardo’s father, for whom he is the sole caretaker, is reaching a crisis point in a terminal illness. If Bernardo needed both a good and real reason to withdraw from participating in Juan’s quasi-harebrained scheme, his father has unwittingingly provided it in a timely way. Plagued by divided loyalties, Bernardo abandons his father. He joins Juan to, through the medium of unsavory types who play no minor role in the art world’s acquisition of its treasures, put the duo in touch with a seasoned “fence” of renown. The fence has journeyed to Acapulco from another continent to interrogate the plan that the two pretenders have in mind for him.
There are so many ways in which this twice-as-smart-by-half plan can go sideways that it’s worth seeing the film just to see whether your guess corresponds to the actual one.
If you have seen Mordecai Richter’s 1974 Canadian-made film “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” with Richard Dreyfuss and Randy Quaid, you have already met this obsessive character Juan and the friend he harms. This time the schemer is a real-life felon driven by self-righteous resentment or contempt for (variously) the “rat-race,” inherited privilege, and/or what was taken by nefarious means. Remember the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian cannibalistic guerrilla outfit of the 1970s? Under the pretense of making a revolution, it slid down a slippery Stalinist-conceived slope into a genocidal practice that the Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro characterized as “something worse than capitalism.” If so, you will recognize how unceremoniously a social critique can fall prey to a nihilist action plan. Juan is the random guy who justifies his anti-social acts by invoking a social critique and political rationale fueled more by narcissism than historical imperative.
All key roles in the film are well constructed. The actors appear to find who their characters are in some aspect of their experience. Museo is a welcome and well-considered argument. Moreover, it’s an additional weapon in the Culture Wars, aimed at the “appropriation” tyranny which has had many teeth set on edge in recent months.