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Who owns cultural history? In 'Museo,' Gael García Bernal explores this thorny issue

"What things belong in a museum? Should they belong somewhere else or should they not be in the museum at all," said the actor about his role.
Image: Gael Garcia Bernal, Leonardo Ortizgris
Gael Garcia Bernal and Leonardo Ortizgris in a scene from Alonso Ruizpalacios's film, "Museo"Courtesy of TIFF

TORONTO, Canada — Throughout his career, Gael García Bernal has used his youthful energy to play anxious rogues and sensitive troublemakers. From his breakout roles in “Amores Perros” and “Y Tu Mamá También ,” the actor has graduated into playing the conflicted lead in the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle,” a fatherly figure in “Coco” and is currently working on a new adaptation of the famous Mexican superhero, Zorro.

In his latest role in Alonso Ruizpalacios“Museo,” Bernal once again returns to the mischievous charm of his early days. Juan (García Bernal) is at once a scoundrel and a thief who cares almost too much about the priceless artifacts he and his friend, Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris), steal from Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology. It was one of the largest art heists in the country’s history, although the Christmas Day theft of over 140 items wasn’t exactly successful.

Under stress from the heist, Juan undergoes a kind of change of heart about who he wants to sell these rare artifacts to, arguing against selling to outsider collectors.

In a clever way, the movie raises the issue of who is allowed to own and sell culture.

“You can interpret this transformation as they’re becoming haunted by the pieces,” said García Bernal of the movie's main characters. He and director Mexican director Alonzo Ruizpalacios spoke to NBC News while they showed the film at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“They even wonder if it has special powers or if they're going to be to be a detective following them. It is a strange contradiction, of course, because at the same time, they're willing to steal. A lot of what this discussion is what things belong in a museum, should they belong somewhere else or should they not be in the museum at all?”

“People own things, and there's interesting arguments on both sides,” said García Bernal. “I don't feel the need to own things, really. I'm not just not born like that. I just feel that everything should be displayed in some ways [where] everyone can see it.”

In his research for the film, director Ruizpalacios said he found even more contradictions in the art world.

“I'd never paid attention to people collecting art,” he said. “Now, I see them everywhere, and I pay attention to who's collecting what. For example, we went to the library of an architect who designed the museum [in the movie]. In his house, they kept his library, and it's an amazing place — It's huge and it's full of art objects like from all over the world and gifts that were handed to him. How much of that stuff is in private collections that we can't even see?”

Gael Garcia Bernal in a scene from Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios's new film, "Museo"Courtesy of TIFF

García Bernal recognizes that some collectors, in their own ways, protect art from being lost or damaged.

True to the bitter humor of Ruizpalacios’ previous film, his internationally acclaimed, “Güeros,” “Museo” reveals the two young men have bungled their poorly thought-out plan and are now fugitives weighed by cargo they cannot sell to any collectors.

In their efforts to profit off the stolen goods, they leave Mexico City to Acapulco, a hub for outsiders and rich tourists. On their trip, they stop at the public sites of Mayan ruins, and the movie subtly raises the paradox of tourism: Is a historical place helped or ruined by the droves of tourists that trample the ancient grounds?

The moment was not lost on García Bernal, who lamented the state of the ancient site.

“It's full of hotels and right within the city,” he said. “But it’s like a very new Burning Man there,” he said, adding that rich tourists can enjoy all-inclusive resorts and pricey trinkets that in turn, also help keep the attraction open for visitors.

“It is an ongoing argument in society, the saving the past versus making it accessible for everyone,” said García Bernal. “It's just really interesting to see what happens with that other person [who]crosses the line.”

Sharing history, art and culture goes beyond placing items in a display case or hanging them on a wall.

In addition to the movie’s sly sense of humor, slick visual style and García Bernal’s standout performances, “Museo” proves to be a provocative movie exploring how we approach and value the priceless reminders of our past.

“Museo” opens in New York City on Sept. 14.