At the World Cinema Showcase, the good, the bad, and the not so ugly.
A gritty, slow burn crime thriller, Miss Bala surprises with its heady mix of dirt stained realism, frontier violence, and the kind of formal precision you’d expect to see in a European art house film. This story of a Mexican beauty pageant contestant who inadvertently finds herself on the unglamorous frontline of the ‘war on drugs’ is equally surprising in that its bizarre genre plot finds its basis ‘loosely’ in the true story of a Mexican beauty queen involved in a gang related ammunition haul arrest in 2008.
The film’s somewhat passive protagonist is Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), who, with the persuasion of a friend, enters a local beauty pageant hoping to win the title of Miss Baja—a clever play (you’ll note) on the film’s title which translates as Miss Bullet, in turn referring back to the actual incident the film is based on. When a routine evening out with her friend takes a sudden turn into life or death territory, her heretofore witnessed independence and strength of will are usurped by forces—in the shape of Mexican drug lords and American Drug Enforcement Agency agents—outside of her ability control.
That Miss Bala opens with a lengthy steady cam shot through the narrow confines of the hallway in an impoverished house is telling. Writer-director Gerardo Naranjo and his director of photography Mátyás Erdély evince deliberateness in frame and edit (Naranjo also cut the film), and a deliberation in the shots themselves that (as a friend noted post screening) shares much in common with the work of celebrated Italian filmmaker Michaelangelo Antonioni. The filmmakers’ treatment transforms a film that could easily have played as a typical genre piece into an enigmatic mash of style. Miss Bala displays an almost Reality TV visual feel, which makes the formal handling all the more striking and goes some way to offsetting an occasionally sluggish pace —something at odds with other aspects of the film. The big action sequences possess a kind of classic western flavour; one in particular reminded of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral overlaid with a modern ‘reality’ aesthetic, played out on the soiled streets of Tijuana.
Naranjo’s film carries an undertone of cynicism which rings as a clear note at the film’s conclusion. The cat and mouse game between the gang players and the DEA has a perfunctory feel: everybody knows their steps in this dance, even our protagonist whose performance is one of grim but detached inevitability. Laura traverses the film responding to forces beyond her control with an unacknowledged but very apparent understanding that her future has been taken out of her hands; brief moments of dissent just as quickly proved ineffectual. The ‘war on drugs’ is painted—as it often is—as a web of unofficial complicity, a co-dependent relationship driven primarily by underlying economics rather than its more obvious political facade.
Miss Bala presents with a surprising sense of cohesion considering its seemingly ill-tailored parts. Despite some personal misgivings regarding the arc (or lack thereof) of the Laura character, the film is such an interesting piece—both in terms of story and construction—that I’d certainly recommend catching a screening if the genre or synopsis carries any appeal for you. It will be interesting to watch where the director Gerardo Naranjo goes next.