Cinema Review: Miss Bala – Film of the Week

Crown me

DIR: Gerardo Naranjo • WRI: Gerardo Naranjo, Mauricio Katz • PRO: Pablo Cruz • DOP: Mátyás Erdély • ED: Gerardo Naranjo • CAST: Stephanie Sigman, Irene Azuela, Miguel Couturier

Anyone with a passing interest in world events will be aware of the hideously escalating death toll in Mexico’s drug wars over the last decade. The government’s failure to deal with the country’s hugely powerful, ruthlessly violent paramilitary drug gangs has led to tens of thousands of fatalities, many of them innocent civilian. The director of Miss Bala, Gerardo Naranjo, recently invited Mexican president Felipe Calderon to attend a screening of his film, an indication of the relative dearth of Mexican films dealing directly with this national catastrophe. Naranjo was clearly determined to reveal the stark truth of this epidemic of violence, and in particular, its devastating effects on the ordinary citizens of Mexico. With Miss Bala, Naranjo succeeds brilliantly in this mission – the resulting work is one of the most viscerally powerful and gripping films of the year.

The action of Miss Bala centers entirely on Laura (Stephanie Sigman), a beautiful, ultra-skinny Tijuana girl who enters the Miss Baja California pageant with her best friend Suzu in an attempt to escape their dangerous surroundings. When a local nightspot is violently invaded by a murderous local drug gang, led by the ruthless Lino (Noe Hernandez), a chain of events occurs which forces Laura under the control of the cartel. After some bullet-strewn confrontations, Laura wins the rigged beauty pageant – a farcical event whose fake glitz and glamour is juxtaposed throughout the film with the ugly reality of Mexico’s corruption and violence. However, Laura’s triumph is merely one element of the gang’s strategy for her, and she finds herself dodging more hails of gunfire as the film accelerates towards a memorable climax. Amazingly, this is all based on real events (see the 2008 case of Laura Zuniga, arrested shortly after winning the Miss Sinaloa beauty contest while in a truck loaded with a massive arsenal of weapons and ammunition).

The most depressing aspect of Laura’s ordeal is that she has absolutely no-one to turn to. Trapped in a lawless, amoral world, she is left totally at the mercy of her captors. The drug gangs exert such a corrupt hold on this society that police, and even media, victimise and abuse Laura as she is pushed from pillar to post by Lino’s violent mob. The entire film functions as an indictment of Mexico’s government and institutions, specifically their inability to tackle the corruption that blights the nation and allows the drug cartels to spread such misery and carnage.

At the centre of the film’s maelstrom of violence Stephanie Sigman gives a superb performance as Laura, eliciting just the right mix of vulnerability and resilience to emphatically win the audience’s sympathies as her character is comprehensively chewed up and spat out by an inhuman and unjust system. Her tainted beauty pageant tiara and quiet suffering acquire a strong spiritual dimension as her ordeal plays out, evoking comparisons with another modern Latin American classic rich with religious symbolism, Joshua Marston’s Maria Full of Grace.

Gerardo Naranjo’s supremely confident, sure-footed direction and excellent cinematography make Miss Bala a riveting watch, his restless camera gliding through the chaotic action to fully immerse us in the terror which Laura experiences. The sudden eruptions of gunfire are vividly intense, Naranjo lending a sense of panicked immediacy to the disorienting violence. There are no stylised fountains of blood or fancy gunplay in this film, Naranjo effectively capturing the brutal noise and sheer terror of a full-fledged gun battle. Miss Bala is a mesmerising film of great force, and manages to utterly grip the viewer from first frame to last. One of the films of the year and a strong early contender for next years Best Foreign Film Oscar®. Not sure what President Calderon will make of it, though…

Martin Cusack

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
Miss Bala is released on 28th October 2011

Miss Bala– Official Website

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