‘Miss Bala’ sets a new bar for Mexican filmmaking

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Miss Bala
Directed by Gerardo Naranjo
2011, Mexico

You may not know it, but Mexican cinema is alive and has something to tell us. Overshadowed by the big wigs of the American studio system, foreign markets are endlessly trying to compete with the big budgeted, CGI saturated, sequel profiteering that has blindsided artistic talents to go forth and pursue the American cinematic dream: think board and spend big for the sake of mass hysteria. Swedish cinema has become a frontrunner in recent years with commercial and critical success with such examples as Let the Right One In and The Millennium Trilogy, now garnering American attention and adaptations. Although these films like many other foreign favorites are masterful and grand within their own respects, the fact is there’s simply no stopping the Hollywood studios from looking elsewhere to bank on ideas that aren’t their own. As Hollywood rummages outside its continental borders for the next borrowed idea to latch onto, they really shouldn’t have to look far. Directors Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hell Boy) are preeminent spokesmen of Mexican cinema, of whom started their careers with more modest films, have grown to balance their filmographies with crowdpleasers. It’s this balance of targeting audiences with dynamic visuals and abrasive storylines that is far more evident within Mexican filmmaking than in any other markets of modern recollection. There is something special about the Mexican bijou that comes across as domesticated, no matter the universe of the story telling, rooting itself within concerns that are relevant not only to their people but with humankind in general. When a family of cannibals have to figure out who will be their next paternal leader after their father dies (Jorge Michel Grau’s Somos Lo Que Hay), the importance of family relationships are at stake. When a car accident connects three involved individuals with their grieving processes (Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros), self-acquisition and worth come into play. And now with Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala, the topic of drug trafficking and official corruption is seen quite literally through the lens of a director who is trying to shed light on close homeland issues.

Miss Bala follows the story of Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), the sheltered heroine who dreams of leaving the poverty-stricken life of selling clothes for her father and caring for her younger brother; to become a Tijuana beauty pageant contestant. After passing the first hurtle of nomination, she and her friend celebrate by going to a party infested by law enforcement. Unaware of what’s to come, bloodshed arises as a drug mob raids the party taking Laura into custody while forcing her to work for the kingpin. In return Laura does not only qualify to be in the pageant but is thrown the title of Miss Bala, essentially what comes across as selling her soul to the devil. Peaked by moments of intense first-person arsenal gun fights, car crashes and explosions; our protagonist’s corrupted career is so pervasive, that it’s merely accepted as her new found way of life.

The strength of the film resides in its compliancy with discipline. The time prior to midpoint plays almost as a mute emotionless montage of events, depicting Laura’s lack of choice in the matter. Each task Laura has to endure, whether it be switching cars on the side of a busy street, transporting money across the border by taping stacks around her belly or being taken advantage of sexually by her boss; she embodies a level of confusion that is neither questioned nor stirred. Even the fruits of winning the honor of Miss Bala comes as no surprise (although plays as comedic to the runner-up’s dismay), but rather disappointing since Laura knows that it was not truly earned, the way she had dreamed it to be.

Slow pacing in a film that perceives itself as a thriller is somewhat of a rarity in conventional theater. For a lot of people this will be misconstrued as negative and dull, since it does leave the mind

trailing at some critical plot points. But if you do allow yourself to seep into Laura adventure, fully emerged in the climate that she is walking about, you’ll come to understand the appropriate morale of directing a story in this nature. Too many times in modern filmmaking, action is taken for granted and only seen for its spectacle. With Miss Bala, each twist and turn that Laura faces is communicated with such commonality, such unspoken awareness, that the film itself becomes the morale fabric of the societal issues that face Mexico. The film in itself, although fictional, comes across as a documentary presenting a truthful statement about the country’s current state of corruption.

Don’t let that discourage you though, because when the film wants to be bombastic, it certainly does not hold back. The ending in particular is by far one of the best seen this year, equipped with whistling bullet rattles and off camera madness that will prop you off the edge of your seat and have goose bumps prickling your forearms. By far the ending picks up the slack and rushes through with no regrets. After winning the crown, Laura must now show face and attend a party escorted by military elite. In a scene that really sells the film, we see Laura reading the headlines of a newspaper highlighting her very own victory. News that would normally make the most adult feminist into the giddiest schoolgirl comes across as uninteresting, compared to the merciless violence traced to her secretive wrongdoings. As she flips the paper, as we see her eyes skip from beautiful to ugly revelations, we realize her priorities shift from warm dreams to cold realities. We know that if she could, she would go back to the plain life that she left behind. And at the very end, she does just that. After a high octane scene that plays like the ending of The Departed mixed with even a little Children of Men imagery, Laura is blamed for transporting drugs to that party and her cover is blown. Stripped away of her title, she is publically humiliated and sent to jail. Yet as the doors of the patty wagon open, she is kicked onto the very same dirt street we see her on in the beginning of the film. The circle of life continues. In a world filled with corruption there is no line between criminals and justice, and there is certainly no difference between dreams and nightmares. In the end, dreams end with our poor protagonist’s journey. And life goes on.

You may not know Mexico is relevant to your cinematic experiences, but it’s all around us. From hits like The Hobbit to Desperado to festival favorites like Babel and Motorcycle Diaries, it’s important to be aware of great cinema markets when they do well. It’s just as important for our viewing pleasures as it is for Hollywood to take notice. Mexico is making its mark more now than ever, and with films like Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala existing, it’s time for studios to recognize. In a recent interview at the Film Society of New York’s Lincoln’s Center, Naranjo professed his fear of holding back on showing Mexico’s condition with drug trafficking and violence. Well Mr. Naranjo, fear not. In a world of stories filled with dramatization and exaggeration, your words are as real as they come during a time when reality isn’t shown enough.

Chris Clemente

1 Comment
  1. tmack says

    Although Miss Bala was extremely watchable, I felt that the last half lapsed into a “perils of Pauline.” Its biggest problem was the acting of Miss Bala whose limited experience produced only a couple of expressions for shock and compliance. For much of the movie, I wondered whether she had Stockholm’s Syndrome or PTSD? Zombies rarely make interesting characters, though there are actors who can convey a lot within a limited range of expressions. Take Gary Oldman’s performance in Tinker Tailor, a role consigned to only the first gear in a 5-gear transmission. How Oldman develops a character using only 1 gear is an exciting testament to acting prowess and directorial assistance. The Miss Bala actress fails to deliver a range of telling nuances to her role as the shell shocked beauty queen.

    I immediately thought of Maria, Full of Grace, when I saw this film. Although Maria chooses her situation, she does so naively unprepared for the consequences of her choice. Maria struggles her way through her predicament and emerges from the other side a changed person. Miss Bala ends where she started, if not slightly worse for wear–no character arc whatsoever.

    Of course, George Smiley doesn’t have much of a character arc either, which is, I believe, the reason for that montage of triumph at the end of the film. The director wisely grants him ascension and vindication, though Smiley is essentially the same Smiley he’s always been.

    Still, I enjoyed Miss Bala but probably would have enjoyed it more with a better actress playing the role.

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