Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 16, 2018 7:17 pm 
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Ruizpalacos' impressive second film is a witty, wide-ranging riff on an epic art theft

As he showed in his 2014 debut feature Güeros, Alonso Ruizpalacos is an exciting and original new young director from Mexico. "Güeros" is a word that specially refers to light-skinned people in Mexico. The film focused on a "handful" of a (light-skinned, i.e. "güero") teenager sent by his mother to stay for a while with his (dark-skinned) older brother at the university. It's 1999, and at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), in summer, and a huge student strike is going on that has led to class conflicts and a widespread identify crisis among the students. But the brother and his slacker roomate are "on strike" from the strike. Inspired by the younger brother, nicknamed Güeros, they wind up on a quest, with the roommate and a girl, for a Sixties Mexican rock idol called Epigmeneo Cruz whom the boy idolizes. The result is a vision that looks at the nature of Mexico. Everything about this film is fresh, quirky, smart, humorous, and beautiful, particularly its distinctively personal black and white cinematography. While intensely conscious of its Mexican focus, Güeros alludes to the revolutionary mood of the Sixties and to the French Nouvelle Vague. It's a brilliant, fun debut, and won the best first film award at Berlin.

Chapter Two of what we hope will be a hefty volume is Ruizpalacios' second feature, Museo. This time there are two internationally known actors in the cast, Gael García Bernal as the protagonist and the Chilean actor Alfredo Castro as his father. This film is based on a different kind of real event, which happened in 1985: a spectacular robbery of the National Archaeological Museum that resulted in the temporary disappearance of some of the country's most priceless cultural treasures. Again there is a "road trip" aspect to this film, as the two guys, once more a couple of slackers but this time thirty-somethings, go in search of buyers for the fabulous loot they have stolen more for the hell of it than anything else. You could say their crime was a gesture of cultural benefit to the Mexican nation, since it made citizens rush to the Archaeological Museum for the first time. It also revealed the museum's lousy security. The pair were in and out through a small air conditioning duct and did the deed in half an hour, coming away with 124 priceless objects that were small and easy to carry. The alarm system had been out of order for three years. The undisciplined staff, drunk celebrating Christmas Eve, who didn't even discover the robbery till the next morning, were also shown up. This hushed heist sequence has some of the excitement of Rififi or Topkapi.

But this isn't a conventional crime thriller or a noir à la Rififi so much as an exploration of
national cultural values and a look at the a directionless Mexican urban middle class. The robbery mastermind is Juan Nuñez (García Bernal), his hapless partner (and meditative post-facto voiceover) Benjamin Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris are, both thirty-somethings living at home, in the same comfortable middle-class neighborhood of Ciudad Satélite, both students in veterinary school who seem never to graduate. Juan's father (Castro) is a disapproving and emotionally unavailable doctor. Juan's "mastery" of the museum comes from working there for a summer to earn money to pay for his pot habit. Out of this unpromising soil grows an historic robbery. Juan's family life, highlighted by Chrsitmas Eve celebrations, is depicted with laser-sharp clarity. Wilson's less so, but his father is deathly ill: Juan has to force him to leave at a crucial moment, giving one a sense of how vague and confused the guys' motivations are.

Once the heist is done, the national news on TV shows the pair they've become arch criminals who've betrayed their national heritage. They go to Acapulco on a quest to sell the treasures to a British collector, Frank Graves (Simon Russell Beale), who tells them their loot is too famous, too hot, and too valuable for anyone to be willing to buy it. Well, there is room for much rumination, and an odd family confrontation which doubtless had nothing to do with the actual thieves' behavior: Ruizpalacios has adapted events and riffed off of them with great freedom. There are various history lessons for Mexicans here, about the big earthquake in 1985, the arrival of the Keiko orca, the monolith of Tlaloc, and a visit to the Mayan archaeological site of Palenque and the tomb of Pakal from which a a jade mask comes. Juan points out that art we call "pre-Colombian" and Latin Americans call "prehispánico" should properly be called "mesoamerican." A key point emerges in Juan's discussion with Graves: the majority of the ancient artifacts that turn up in museums get there by dubious means. Simply put, it's all stolen stuff to begin with - so why not steal it? But if now they cannot sell what they got, where can it go? Everything revolves in circles in this wise and ruefully comic shaggy dog story.

The reviews have been glowing, and this time Ruizpalacios won the best scenario prize at the Berlinale. Taking on one of history's greatest art heists is a big challenge, and for me Güeros is more quirky, personal, surprising, and fun, and also more economical in length. But this subject is ideally suited to the director's present purposes. he remains closely linked with youth films like Alex dos Santos' 2006 Glue, Che Sandoval's You Think You're the Prettiest, But You Are the Sluttiestt (2009), and the work of Fernando Eimbcke and Gerardo Naranjo. And one shouldn't forget Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También, which first brought García Bernal to wide attention. For admiring description of the important roles played by Damián Garcí's original, nible cinematography and Tomás Barreiro's distinctive score, see Jessica Kiang's rave Variety review penned at Museo's Berlin debut.

Museo ("Museum"), 128 mins., debuted at Berlin, receiving the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay, and showing at seven other international festivals including Karlovy, Toronto, Athens, Busan, and London. The US release began (NYC) 14 Dec. 2018. Screened for this review at Rialto Elmwood, Berkeley 15 Dec. 2018. Metascore 88.

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