TIFF 2011: ‘Miss Bala’ a frightening, claustrophobic crime drama

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Miss Bala

Written by Mauricio Katz & Gerardo Naranjo

Directed by Gerardo Naranjo

Mexico, 2011

Chance, for better or for worse, suggests circumstances beyond one’s control. Laura Guerrero aspires to be a beauty queen, in part because it means greater opportunities for her family. Chance works against her though, and she stumbles into a gang war.

Miss Bala succeeds because it forgoes traditional dramatic tropes associated with the crime picture. This is not a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the romantic story of a criminality as a counter-cultural movement. On the contrary, the depth of the criminal element is so pervasive that it is more unlikely not to somehow be touched by its influence. Even a small beauty pageant is controlled by these dark forces; there is no escape.

The film does not attempt to paint crime as an outside element fighting against the people – instead, it exists as a powerful symptom of a flawed social structure. Though perhaps it relies a bit too heavily on our equation of beauty with virtue (would the film be as powerful if Laura had been some dumpy male adolescent? It would have been a different film of course, but the corruption and destruction of beauty is a far more jarring affront for most viewers… which is problematic as well). Laura is a victim in every sense and we understand any level of co-operation on her part as merely an attempt to continue living. She remains a strong and vital woman, but the scope of violence eclipse her so completely that she becomes a helpless cog in a large machine. Irene Azuela is a truly invigorating presence who properly suggests compromise and strength in her performance as Laura.

The contrast between the artificial glamour of the beauty pageant and the daily lives of the characters makes for a striking visual landscape. The pageant becomes a grand central metaphor that suggests misplaced social values. The cheap opulence of those in ill-gotten privilege similarly mirrors the artificiality of these beauty constructs. More importantly, though, it undermines the importance they hold for the women who participate in them by flaunting the excesses of their lifestyle while these women are scraping together every last dollar for an opportunity at a better life.

Miss Bala is a frightening portrait of a society corrupted by violence and crime. The gang wars mean real success for those who participate in it, while the rest of society is held hostage by it’s control. It is a compelling and claustrophobic drama that will win over most audiences. It fails to have any strong iconographic moments, but is consistently effective as a thriller that does not pander too much to bourgeois sensibilities.

Justine Smith

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8th to the 18th. Tickets, schedules, and other information can be found on the festival’s website.

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