On Christmas Eve 1985, Mexico City’s world-renowned National Museum of Anthropology was victim to a massive heist, losing 140 Mayan, Aztec and other pre-Columbian artifacts in a single night. The Times reported then that the museum believed that “the thieves are professionals who will probably try to sell the artifacts abroad.”
But the reality was quite different.
In the new film “Museo,” director Alonso Ruizpalacios reveals that the thieves weren’t well-trained, suave and highly-skilled criminal masterminds, the likes of which we’ve seen in heist movies such as “Oceans 8.” The real masterminds of the scandalous heist in “Museo” are just two bored veterinary-school dropouts who hatched their plan after a marijuana-fueled joyride.
While Ruizpalacios’ based-in-fact film relates the sometimes funny antics of the two thieves — the Carlos Castaneda-worshipping, Pink Floyd-loving Juan (Gael García Bernal) and his best friend Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris) — the theft raises big philosophical questions about cultural history: Who are the true keepers of history? How is value ascribed to cultures? And is archaeology a kind of theft itself? As the characters travel around their country trying to sell the priceless artifacts, the film becomes an exploration of cultural appropriation through the lens of 1980s Mexico.
The film has been a critical favorite along the festival circuit leaving Berlin and Los Angeles film festivals with rave reviews, and Sept. 28, it opens in Los Angeles on a limited release before it heads to YouTube as the platform’s first Spanish-language original film. Ruizpalacios and García Bernal recently sat down with The Times at the Toronto Film Festival to talk about the film and the deeper cultural questions the movie provoked.
The film is loosely based on the actual heist that happened in Mexico in 1985, but there’s deeper message about the theft of Mexican art and culture. How did you develop that message and story?
Alonso Ruizpalacios: I think it’s in the process of discovery, what the themes in the film are. They kind of reveal themselves, little by little, throughout the writing and the directing and then the shooting and then the editing. It wasn’t straight away that I said, “Okay, I want to speak about this.” It was little by little that we discovered that there was the question of national identity and who defines that, and related to the property of art as well. There was a very interesting way in which those two subjects spoke to each other.
Gael García Bernal: The characters are based on the true story but also with other elements [of] our upbringing [and] our esoteric closeness that we have to our culture.
The film also raises the question of who should be the keepers of all this art history of our culture? Should the ones that excavate and find these pieces own them, or should they belong to the people?
Ruizpalacios: I do think that the National Institute of Anthropology and History, the NIAH, is a noble institution. It has its many flaws and everything, but on the whole, they’ve done very important work of preserving and keeping the memory of what Mexico was.
García Bernal: Really, Mexico has been the one that’s made a whole institution of recovering the past.
Ruizpalacios: For sure. The question of whether the pieces should be kept in the place where they were found or they should be taken to a central place like Mexico City where more people can see it, I think that’s a more complicated matter.
García Bernal: There’s strong argument on both sides. Leaning towards my personal feeling that I really don’t recognize the urge to own things, I believe that everyone should own everything. But it’s true that if it wasn’t for the people that really adore collecting and love those pieces, there wouldn’t be people to take care of them.
Ruizpalacios: There’s a line in the film where Frank Graves, the British collector, says, “There’s no preservation without looting.” I think that’s actually true. Sometimes it’s the private collection that’s been responsible for the preservation of art.
There’s no easy answer for that. Museums seem to be the answer, but they’re not the only answer. Many times leaving the artifact in the place where they were found seems to be the answer because there’s a relationship between the people and the artifact, like what was the case with the monolith that the movie starts off with. But other times it has been proved that when those things are left there, they’re not taken care of and sometimes they just fade away.
García Bernal: They get destroyed, desecrated. There’s really tremendous extremes to that, like what happens in Syria, for example, because that’s young. ISIS is financing their operation by selling those pieces to Europeans, which, I don’t know, it’s an extreme that we’re not talking about right now but it’s part of the same line.
I think it also speaks to the fact that we don’t recognize the significance of our own pieces of history until someone else comes to claim it.
García Bernal: Exactly, or like, I don’t know if you’re aware of Mexico’s taking back the crown of Montezuma. He had many crowns, but this was the one that he gave to [Hernán] Cortés, and it’s in Austria, and apparently it’s always on the verge of almost coming back.
Ruizpalacios: But the Austrian government claims they can’t transport it because there’s no way that it can make the journey. That if they move it, it will just crumble.
García Bernal: And there’s the complication again. They took it long ago, stole it from Mexico essentially, and now it’s a battle to get it back.
Do you feel this feeds into how Mexican culture — or Latino culture in general — is continuously stolen from, or forgotten, and other people can rewrite who we are?
García Bernal: And getting away with it. Maybe? I have had to administrate my anger, my frustration, my resentment. I have to transfer it to another way and understand it in another way.
I think the people that feel this — and are able to have stronger and more acute analysis of what goes on — are the Mexican Americans and Latinos in the United States; they’re the ones that can probably save and preserve culture, and we need those voices to be heard.