Back in 2014, the Mexican writer-director Alonso Ruizpalacios signed off on an odd, memorable debut film titled Güeros, one of the more playful New Wave homages of recent times. In his subsequent projects, Ruizpalacios has persisted with that film's theme of truth versus reality. His most recent offering, A Cop Movie, has just started streaming on Netflix, to rightful acclaim; but you'll have to navigate around YouTube's pay-per-view Originals section to access its 2018 predecessor Museo, a former festival-circuit favourite that bills itself as "a replica of a true story". Promotional photos show Gael García Bernal balancing a Rubik's Cube on his head, and in some ways the film is very much a Rubik's movie. It has Bond-style opening credits, features Scorsesean crime moves, and lands upon a great McGuffin in a sackful of Aztec gold, but Ruizpalacios keeps shuffling around these shiny borrowings with an eye to placing his characters' transgressions in some wider social and historical context. He's playing two roles simultaneously: dextrous director and careful, concerned curator.
The gold is swiped from Mexico City's National Institute of Anthropology and History by a pair of opportunistic slackers: Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris), our narrator and the notional conscience of the piece, and Juan, commonly known as Lazy Juan or Shorty (which is where the diminutive Bernal comes in), a veterinary student from an upper-middle class family whose doctor father (Alfredo Castro, Latin American cinema's new go-to for forbidding patriarchs) insists on putting his boy through an annual drug test. ("It's anal this year," he tells Juan, unnervingly.) Within this uptight milieu, Juan and Wilson come to represent mischief and rebellion. Juan spoils a family Christmas gathering by telling the youngsters Santa's not real, and he appears to have conceived the idea for the heist as payback for the earlier slight of being told he couldn't touch the exhibits. The duo are thus liberators, intent on returning the gold to its rightful burial place, yet they're also as naive as children. They end up falling out over this booty, not in that no-honour-among-thieves, Sierra Madre style, but in the manner of kindergartners squabbling over a toy - perhaps even that self-same Rubik's Cube.
The trick is that Ruizpalacios makes their waywardness infectious and involving. Consider the heist itself: a fiddly thing, necessitating the use of tacks and copper wire to shortcut the museum's alarm systems, and carried out in a Rififi-like silence. It's a setpiece that grants us the thrill of being somewhere we shouldn't be, doing something we shouldn't be doing - and seeing it pay off. And yet Ruizpalacios is just as interested in the way the boys' crime exposed a set of attitudes, opened up a faultline between the generations. To you and I, the heist may just resemble an unusually sophisticated variant of student hijinks. Yet to the Castro character, eyeballing the TV news coverage while blind to the fact he's sheltering those who carried out this raid, those responsible are "the dark shit of this country" and "deserve to be whipped in the town square". That's where the tension within this narrative comes from: our mounting fear these boys will end up receiving far more than just a light judicial slap on the wrist.
Around them, you catch Ruizpalacios and his cinematographer Damián García amusing themselves with off-kilter compositions; every now and again, their protean imagery clicks together like the tumblers on a safe. The graphics on a Space Invaders-type game line up with the hieroglyphs on a tomb; a picture on a wall rhymes with a sculpture we've earlier seen the boys relieving themselves against. (The idea of replication - that we're all just walking in somebody else's footprints - creeps into the film's very visual design.) It might seem a deeply eccentric film were you to miss these internal rhymes and connections, the playfulness nudging it forward, and the control reining it in; as it is, it's still fairly rum, right through to the Simon Russell Beale cameo as an English fence who twigs faster than most that the kids he's dealing with are lambs to the slaughter. Characterful and illuminating with it, though, inviting us to join in with the challenge the film sets itself of puzzling these events out - to parse what this tale really meant, its societal implications, and what these boys' misdemeanours teach us about the relationship between Mexico past and present.
Museo is now available to rent via YouTube Originals.