Starring Gael García Bernal. In Spanish, English, and Mayan, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
One of many unusual things about this phenomenal heist movie is that the robbery happens right away. Usually, you spend a lot of time seeing a team assembled and wondering what will go wrong. Here, despite being utter nincompoops, the two guys behind the biggest art theft in Mexican history pull off their one-time job—which really happened, on Christmas Eve of 1985—with almost miraculous aplomb. It’s in what comes after where things really go pear-shaped.
The story centres on Juan, a slacker with a heart of pure confusion, played by Gael García Bernal, far from his turn as Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries. Juan’s stint as an assistant at Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology doesn’t inflame his love of Mesoamerican history; the real problem is that he gets no respect from the many members of his family, crowding into their handsome home in a cushy Mexico City suburb so anonymous it’s actually called Satélite. Whether to impress his remote doctor father (Chile’s Alfredo Castro) or to defy him, the aging lad dreams of pulling a magnificent crime with his best friend, Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris).
Another tip-off to this film’s skewed vision is that it is narrated by Wilson—odd because the guy seems a bit dim, and disappears from the story for long periods of increasingly strange action. Along the way, one or both of them head to the cliffs of Acapulco, the pyramids of Palenque, and some nether region where Castaneda meets Camus, with some Maltese Falcon thrown in for fun. Cinematographer Damián García makes every possible use of his widescreen format, with weird angles and uneasy focus adding a feeling of suspense that sometimes dissolves into giggles.
The movie’s subtext is that whatever’s been stolen from a museum has already been stolen countless times before. This is underlined by repeated use of Silvestre Revueltas’s score for Night of the Mayas, a 1939 film about conflicts between Mexico’s Indigenous past and its postcolonial identity. In making a tale that fictionalizes the perpetrators of a true-crime landmark, Ruizpalacios tells a pulp story that’s almost a genre unto itself.