Miss Bala

15 Feb

Title: Miss Bala
Year: 2012
Director: Gerardo Naranjo
Writers: Gerardo Naranjo and Mauricio Katz
Starring: Stephanie Sigman, Noe Hernandez, Irene Azuela
MPAA Rating: R, language, some brutal violence and sexuality
Runtime: 113 min
IMDb Rating: 7.0
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%
Metacritic: 80


Miss Bala, which was Mexico’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar (it didn’t make the cut), is a film that has a beauty pageant in it, but it’s also one that couldn’t be more far from glamorous. It tells the story of Laura Guerrero, a young woman who’s always dreamt about becoming a beauty queen in her native country of Mexico, one that’s pretty much ran by organized crime. The film’s a thriller, and it shows us how Laura, the beauty queen, eventually becomes an unwilling pawn of a drug cartel. It’s a pretty amazing story that’s actually loosely based on something that happened, as 2008’s Miss Sinaloa (who was also named Laura) was arrested alongside gang members truck filled with munitions. So this is stuff that actually is part of the Mexican reality, in which organized crime has its hands pretty much everywhere.

That real-life woman was nicknamed Miss Narco by the Mexican press, the Laura of our story, played very well by Stephanie Sigman, is given the nickname of Miss Bala (“bala” means bullet in spanish). Gerardo Naranjo, the director and co-writer of the film, really does a terrific job with this film, delivering a really frantic kind of thriller that’s just really well-constructed, touching upon many elements of the reality of the Mexican nation, and showing in Laura a situation that my guess is more than a few women go through over there; on the one hand she has to win the beauty pageant to get out of the poverty-stricken life she leads, but on the other hand the life she’s put into as she wins is bad in whole other level.

It’s not as though Miss Bala is all real, hard-hitting stuff, not at all. While Mr. Naranjo does indeed provide some real statistics that make us realize just how tough this whole reality is for an entire nation living as witnesses to a seemingly never-ending war against drugs, it’s not as though the film works as a documentary-style statement-raising piece, it’s just an action-thriller kind of movie with some real stuff in it, and not the other way round. He captures the reality of Mexico really splendidly though, as you see Laura’s house that’s so deeply impoverished, with magazine cutouts of fancy models in her bedroom mirror exemplifying a better world she can’t even dream of. Or maybe she can, as we see the many girls like her lining up for the beauty pageant that promises fame and money, a way of thinking that’s very much part of Mexican culture.

The film spans three days in which the story of Laura unravels, Mr. Naranjo doesn’t bother with all that much exposition or character details, we’re just thrown into the meat of the story right away and are trusted by him to catch up and get into it all. The first night Laura goes into a night club, where people that may help her with the pageant hang out, and as the camera trails Laura through the locale we start getting immersed in this world and what it all may mean to her. All of that until the cartel invades the nightclub and she gets caught in the crossfire of a gang shootout that’s shot in a really tense way that adds a lot to the overall effect of it. Many are killed, including drug enforcement agents who were there, and while Laura survives the shootout she’s seen by the local drug cartel leader, Lino, who takes notice of her.

It’s such a good movie, the narrative style never once loosens its grip and even though the dire circumstances Laura now finds herself in are unfortunate, the film never once plays that out for us to take pity on her. The pacing is just off the charts, the film moving really fast, tightly focused on Laura’s story and the desperation that just oozes from it for us to consume. Visually it’s also quite solid, there’s obviously quite a lot of violence going on here, but it’s never the kind that you think is just way exaggerated, we’re given statistics of the lives the drug wars have taken in Mexico, and as such when we see the violence taking place we just know that this is how it really is, no more and no less.

It’s really compelling to see how Laura transforms from innocent by-stander to an actual pawn for the cartel to use, having to comply in order to survive. By having us become close to Laura it means that everything that happens, as we see how every Mexican institution comes to play in this situation, feels much more personal, Mr. Naranjo showing us how a terror that haunts an entire nation is also one that haunts in a much more personal and intimate level. Props have to be given to Ms. Sigman for achieving this as Laura, from going perfectly from showing a naïve kind of hope to a terror as she realizes how helpless her reality is, as she resigns to her new role within the cartel, money trapped to her beauty-queen waist, becoming a mule for them. A film that’s really worth watching, made by a director with a really great kind of confidence.

Grade: B+


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