There’s a sly line of inquiry running through Alonso Ruizpalacios’ “Museo,” a most playful heist picture riffing on the 1985 Christmas Eve robbery of more than 120 priceless Mayan artifacts from Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology. Cheerfully disregarding a lot of the true-crime particulars —a cheeky opening title card informs us that we’re watching a mere “replica of the original” story — Ruizpalacios has fashioned a slippery meditation on questions of ownership, heritage and history as plunder. It’s also very funny.
Gael García Bernal stars as Juan, a 30-something slacker still living at home with his prosperous parents in the exquisitely named suburb Ciudad Satélite. We first meet Juan while he’s trying to coax his mopey sidekick Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris, wearing the saddest mustache in the world) into shooting a Rubik’s Cube off his head with a bow-and-arrow as “a test of loyalty.” These two are supposed to be opening their own veterinary clinic soon, just as soon as they get around to finishing school. From the looks of things it might be a while.
Juan’s the kind of guy who, when asked to wear a Santa suit and hand out gifts after the family Christmas dinner, just tells all the kids where their parents hid the presents and cuts out early. In all honesty, the character might be unbearable were it not for the movie star magnetism of Bernal, an actor I often find too eager-to-please but who here brings an appealingly uningratiating reserve to the role. Juan doesn’t seem to care if you like him or not. So you do.
He and Wilson have a cockamamie plan to rob the anthropology museum that comes off easier than either ever imagined, perhaps the most difficult part of the heist being Juan obtaining his father’s permission to use the car that night. If you ask, they’ve got all sorts of highfalutin intellectual justifications for the crime — these treasures were pilfered from poor villages in the first place, and can you really be a thief if all you’re stealing is stolen property?
But really that’s a lot of baloney and they ripped the place off because they could. (Well, Juan ripped the place off because he could. Wilson went along with it because Juan told him to and that’s how their friendship has always worked.) What follows is where “Museo” gets really interesting, as the robbery ignites a wave of cultural pride in Mexico City, with outraged citizens flocking to the museum to stare at the empty glass cases in solidarity — the artifacts drawing bigger crowds by their absence.
Meanwhile, a shady international art dealer played by the great Shakespearean actor Simon Russell Beale is stuck explaining to our protagonists that no collector is going to be caught dead in the same room with such notorious loot. In other words, they stole stuff that was too valuable, so now it’s worthless. A darkly comic scene late in the film finds an exasperated Juan explaining to a stripper that the items in his red knapsack “are worth millions, and nothing at all.”
Ruizpalacios’ rambunctious first feature, 2015’s “Güeros,” was set during the Mexican university student strike of 1999 and followed a couple of similarly myopic dudes who fancied themselves “on strike” from the strike. He’s got an incredible gift for writing a certain breed of over-educated and under-motivated young male suffering from a disaffection that’ll be awfully familiar to fellow Gen Xers. (It was no surprise to find that the filmmaker turned 40 this year.) He understands guys like Juan all too well, summoning enormous sympathy in certain scenes without ever quite letting him off the hook.
The manic visual cross-referencing of “Güeros” has been smoothed out here into something slightly sleeker, narrated by Ortizgris' Wilson in a tone of wistful retrospect. The screenplay’s larcenous themes carry over behind the camera as well, with Ruizpalacios swiping scenes from the legendary crime films of Jules Dassin, whose 1955 classic “Rififi” gets a real workout here. Even the music is pilfered from the ancients, as composer Tomás Barreiro reworks Silvestre Revueltas’ score from 1939’s “The Night of the Mayas.”
Ruizpalacios’ formal gambits can sometimes be a bit jarring. He likes to underline the film’s most credulity-stretching moments with Brecht-ian fourth-wall breakers like Bernal being recognized by an extra as a movie star or the sounds of himself calling “action” and “cut” during a far-fetched fight scene. But in the end it’s the questions this restlessly intelligent film asks about the shifting values we ascribe to objects that make “Museo” worth the price of a ticket.
"Museo" runs at The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge from Nov. 2 through 6.