Thursday, May 10, 2012

Miss Bala

MISS BALA (Gerardo Naranjo, 2011)

Through no fault of her own Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) gets mixed up in the Mexican drug war in MISS BALA.  The young woman from the outskirts of Tijuana is in the city to sign up for the Miss Baja California pageant.  Later that night she and her friend Suzu (Lakshmi Picazo) are at a club when members of a criminal organization slip in and shoot up the place.

Laura escapes but loses track of Suzu in the melee.  While looking for her the next day, Laura again crosses paths with the drug gang known as La Estrella and its fearsome leader Lino Valdez (Noe Fernandez).  Rather than kill her, Lino forces Laura to participate in their illegal activities.

Statistics shown before the end credits claim more than 36,000 lives have been lost in Mexico during the drug war from 2006 to 2011 and that drug trafficking generates $25 billion annually there.  Director and co-writer Gerardo Naranjo’s film bristles with anger at the toll this situation is having upon the country and its ordinary citizens, and MISS BALA manifests the fury in its blunt dramatization of real life.  This impassioned political work aims to persuade through on-the-ground reporting about the rampant corruption and straw men in the war on drugs rather than with sloganeering.

The depicted events could easily be the basis for a slick Hollywood action film.  Instead Naranjo numbs sensation to make his points about the drug war’s damage to Mexico, turning MISS BALA into a thriller from the dissociative first person perspective.  Laura endures as though she’s having an out of body experience in a waking nightmare.  The mildly disorienting sound design emphasizes that everything she sees, does, and has done to her seems unreal and yet her experiences are horrifyingly all too real.  
Naranjo’s use of negative space in constructing the chaotic border town is MISS BALA’s greatest achievement.  Visually the unsettledness of a Tijuana ruled by criminals is conveyed with key information glimpsed in reflections, suggested beyond Laura’s view, and dropped into exceptionally composed long, unbroken shots.  The back of Laura’s head often faces the camera, yet even with a wide frame the world feels like it’s closing in on her.

Laura’s motivations aren’t always readable in Sigman’s performance, but the protagonist’s opinions are less essential than the one quality the actress ferociously exhibits.  Sigman invests Laura with a survival instinct that supersedes whatever objections she might possess as an unwilling participant in the gang’s dealings.  MISS BALA is loosely based on beauty pageant winner Laura Zúñiga, who was linked to a drug cartel and arrested and detained along with other members in 2008.  Just like beauty queens represent their countries, the film’s version of Laura stands in for the Mexican population.  Sigman is no mere symbol of those put-upon bystanders, though, but a specific reminder of the suffering innocents. 

MISS BALA delivers many aesthetic thrills, including the club ambush and a shootout under an overpass, but Naranjo is using the form to call attention to the harsh truth that the battles on view do not only exist in a movie.  It also proves to be a riveting way of telling the story and transmitting the message most effectively. 

Grade: B

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