Inside the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, where two amateurs conducted one of the world's greatest art heists on Christmas Eve of 1985 while guards were drunk.
Inside the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, where two amateurs conducted one of the world's greatest art heists on Christmas Eve of 1985 while guards were drunk. Diego Grandi/Getty Images
Two huge events happened in Mexico City in 1985 that shook the entire country. First, there were the literal shakes: In the early morning of September 19, 1985, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck the greater Mexico City area. The quake was almost 220 miles away from the city, but since it's precariously built on top of an ancient lake bed, around 412 buildings collapsed and the quake caused the deaths of at least 5,000 people. A second earthquake would hit Mexico City the following April with a magnitude of 7.0. The tremors left the whole city exposed.

The second event that rocked Mexico City was confined to just one location, the city's National Museum of Anthropology and History, but the aftershocks of the event extended across the entire globe. On Christmas Eve, while the guards were drunk, thieves took advantage of the museum's faulty alarm system and got away with around 125 Mayan, Aztec, Miztec, and Zapotec artifacts. The country panicked.

Most of the theories around who stole the items involved foreigners, with many suggesting that the CIA or KGB were behind the heist. (In 1972, a Mexican law banned the sale of pre-Columbian objects for private collections. People argued this theft was an example of how foreigners were getting around that law.) "It’s no secret to anybody that pre-Hispanic pieces stolen from different zones of our country leave Mexico daily, to be taken principally to the United States, a country which, lacking its own valuable cultural antecedents robs or buys others," wrote the columnist Joel Hernandez Santiago in the weekly newspaper Punto.

But three and a half years later, federal officials retrieved nearly all of the stolen artifacts and arrested two men who were behind the theft: Carlos Perches Trevino and Ramon Sardina Garcia. Far from KGB operatives, the men were two ordinary guys who "visited the museum more than 50 times, made sketches and plans, then jumped the fence, crawled through an air-conditioning duct and looted seven display cases before dawn on Christmas Day, 1985," according to the New York Times.

Filmmaker Alonso Ruizpalacios's new film Museo (Museum) reimagines this famous heist, renaming the characters Juan and Wilson, and casting Gael García Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle, Y Tu Mamá También) and Leonardo Ortizgris (Güeros), respectively. It's a remarkably beautiful film that borders on the surreal, with scenes so hypnotic that I literally fell asleep the first three times I watched Museo's screener for this review—which says more about my ability to watch a movie past midnight than the pace of the film. That said, for a heist film, it's not in a hurry to get anywhere. Which is fine, because Ruizpalacios and cinematographer Damián García create lush, sometimes experimental scenes that linger like daydreams.

García Bernal, as always, is exceptional. His performance as Juan, a charming scumbag, is equal parts passionate and directionless. García Bernal has a knack for performing small moments that leave indelible impressions on viewers, and Museo overflows with these moments: a quick, compulsive touch of the funeral ornaments of Pacal the Great; a heavy sigh while pissing on the Torres de Satélite; a kiss on a glass museum case as a museum guard yells, "No touching!" For Juan, crossing these boundaries is carnal.

García Bernal's performance of these boundary-crossing moments reminded me of James Dean's milk-drinking scene in A Rebel Without a Cause, where, after chugging half a carafe of milk, Dean wipes the glass across his forehead and rests his cheek on it, unsatisfied.

García Bernal's Juan finds pleasure in small violations—touching a painting, spoiling Christmas for kids—but is amazed at how when ~125 of these small violations make one big violation—an art heist—he's unsatisfied. This disconnect is the emotional core of the film, and it's thrilling to watch. It's a reminder that García Bernal is one of the industry's best, and he's in great company in Museo.