A deeply preposterous event from modern Mexican history has been turned into a watchable and good-natured dramedy-thriller from director Alonzo Ruizpalacios, who made a terrific new wave-style feature debut in 2014 with his freewheeling movie Güeros. Museum stars Gael Garcia Bernal as a feckless but mercurial student of veterinary medicine; Alfredo Castro is his disapproving father and Simon Russell Beale plays a cynical dealer in ancient artefacts.
In 1985, all of Mexico was horrified when thieves were reported to have broken into the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and stolen 140 priceless Mayan and Aztec objects; the news media solemnly reported that the heist was surely the work of a sophisticated international gang. Their patriotic outrage turned to embarrassment when the crime was found to be the work of two students, smart or reckless enough to have carried out the robbery but too stupid to have grasped that no one would wish to buy the goods. These objects were simultaneously priceless and worthless.
The students are re-imagined as two criminal non-masterminds who are out of their depth as soon as they hit the water. It is no accident that one is obsessed with the cliff divers of Acapulco. Bernal plays Juan, and Leonardo Ortizgris is his hangdog college mate Wilson. At a Peter-Pan-ishly youthful 39 years old, Bernal carries off the role of the indolent student rather well: his face has something venal and self-pitying about it. He is very good at conveying a winsome, wounded sensitivity and self-pity.
Juan slopes around the house, annoying his extended family and querulous parents who still want great or any rate respectable things from him: as Christmas approaches he is expected to dress as Santa to hand out presents at a family party – a responsibility first undertaken by his late grandfather. He has even had to get his Santa costume especially refitted by a tailor. This indignity is the last straw: Juan is determined to hit the big time.
Ruizpalacios suggests that Juan first conceives his masterplan by working a summer job at the museum where he is yelled at for touching the artefacts with his ungloved hands – but he secretly keeps doing it, for the sacrilegious thrill. He has also has student friends who pick up cash as tourist guides, and from them he hears dizzying rumours about certain vastly rich foreigners ready to pay big money for pilfered artefacts.
Ruizpalacios unveils a terrifically good heist sequence: all but silent, in the manner of Jules Dassin’s 1955 classic Rififi. It is edge-of-the-seat stuff when Juan and Wilson have to break into the glass case that holds an unimaginably precious Mayan mask; I wasn’t sure that the film quite showed us how they had that level of specialist expertise. But it’s a grippingly tense scene: like ripping off the mask of Tutankhamen.
And then Juan and Wilson set off on their chaotic and incompetent journey to sell their knapsack full of treasure. Before setting off, Juan tries “cleaning” the mask in the sink with a toothbrush - an unthinkably crass and damaging way of treating the stolen artwork, the kind of crazy negligence Donna Tartt describes in her art theft novel The Goldfinch. And here incidentally is where the film weirdly echoes other Bernal two-person road movies: Y Tu Mamá También and The Motorcycle Diaries. Finally, our two hapless heroes encounter the unsettling British dealer Graves (Simon Russell Beale) who might be induced to get his chequebook out.
Ruizpalacios doesn’t neglect the central irony at the heart of his story, a political irony which is far more current now than it was in 1985: museums are full of stuff that has already been stolen. These objects are not like paintings: their value resides in a real-world authenticity which is linked to the fact that they were never supposed to be viewed under glass in a museum. Somewhere along the line, they’ve been stolen or bought from someone whose right to sell is, to say the least, questionable. So Juan and Wilson are arguably doing the same thing, and Ruizpalacios has his robbers angrily remind the hatchet-faced Graves of this view. Juan also objects to his high-handed and culturally insensitive term “pre-Hispanic”, preferring “Mesoamerican”.
But Juan and Wilson really aren’t social justice warriors, all they want is the money; and when their plan starts to unravel, the audience must ask themselves if these people have the ruthlessness simply to dump their unsellable haul and move on with their lives.
Museum is an oddly genial, garrulous film in many ways – rather like Güeros – and it doesn’t behave quite like a heist thriller, nor exactly like a coming-of-age comedy, despite Juan’s later and very implausible encounter with a soft-porn star of a certain age. The film just barrels along and it’s at its most engaging when Juan has to deal (especially at the beginning) random details and absurdities that will keep cropping up in real life. It’s a very entertaining night in the museum.
Peter Bradshaw is the Guardian's film critic