Bird’s eye view
Gerardo Naranjo’s third film, Miss Bala, is all about point of view. He chooses to tell a tale of Mexican drug cartels and cop-gang war crabwise, from the angle of an innocent young woman whose only desire is to be a contestant in a local beauty contest. She is the pretty, sad-eyed Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), a 23-year-old from Tijuana who goes out one morning with her girlfriend Suzu to enter the competition for the title of “Miss Baja.” Bala, bullet, is an ironic twist on that title. The gangsters who come in contact with her, particularly Lino Valdez (Noe Hernandez), a gang boss who survives a local police purge, force Laura to help them as a driver. He gives her her own gang name, “Carmelita.”
Various virtuoso set pieces, elaborately staged for a largely static camera in very long takes that emphasize Laura’s powerlessness over events, unroll while she is an unwilling witness, and sometimes a direct participant. To begin with, she and Suzu go from the beauty contest signup to a little party at a place called the Millennium Club where there are a bunch of men in uniforms dancing. They turn out to be American DEA agents and the party turns into a massacre — the first of the set pieces, which will grow in violence and complexity: another one is a bullet-drenched police-gangster shootout in plain daylight, and the final one is another shootout when Laura is in a general’s bedroom.
At the Millennium Club, Laura hides and survives but Suzu disappears. Laura comes around the next morning asking a cop to help her find Suzu, and he says he’ll take her to the station to tell shat she saw. But instead she is delivered into the hands of Lino, and her unwilling collaboration begins. In return for it, Lino sees that she is reinstated as a contestant in the Miss Baja pageant, so her participation in this most frivolous aspect of Latin American life continues to be woven in and out of her involvement in revenge killings, acting as a decoy for an assassination, and helping to carry thousands of dollars and boxes of ammunition and weapons across the Mexico-US border in dealings with the US syndicate, which they refer to as “La Vaca.” The gang Lino is in is called Estella. Lino apparently arranges to have Laura win the “Miss Baja” title — since all is from her viewpoint, we never know the whys and wherefores — which helps him, because it guarantees that Laura can gain the attention of the general Lino wants to killl and get her into his bedroom.
In nothing does Laura have a free hand. She is pushed here and there, and Miss Bala becomes a sort of picaresque tale whose heroine is neither quite innocent nor quite guilty. In this her role parallels that of the majority of ordinary Mexican citizens, who are drawn into the widespread criminality and violence willy-nilly. They may not know what’s going on in their own backyards till it bites them in the face. And we have to strain to follow the elaborate gang war going on around Laura, because she doesn’t understand it. She keeps escaping and getting caught again: Estella is omnipresent and omniscient.
This film has a strange kind of mood. It’s an adventure, but there’s something — doubtless intentionally — numbing and deeply sad as well as compelling about its thrills because of the way the narrative shows violence being absorbed into all of Mexican life. Again the carefully choreographed sequences done in a few long Steadicam shots contribute, providing a sense of detachment from the event, while also underlining that it has a life that is independent but also enveloping. The effect isn’t flashy: it conveys a sense of powerlessness, not elation. At key moments the wide aspect ratio shot finds Laura’s face in its dead center staring forward, sometimes numbly, sometimes weeping. (The film is shot in anamorphic 35mm.) These are the defining shots of the film, which still does read as an action film, but with one with a distinctive personal style that includes many moments of stillness, and thus is far from the precipitous loud action of the conventional thriller. The use of music is very restrained, but Pablo Lach’s sound design is very effective in maintaining different a degree of menace even at quiet moments. The Hungarian cinematographer Matyas Erdely, a new collaborator for the director, contributes the look along with Naranjo’s choreography of scenes.
Miss Bala delivers on the growing promise and complexity of previous first two films, Drama/Mex (LFF 2006) and I’m Gonna Explode (NYFF 2008). (There was a LA-shot first feature, the 2004 Malachance, which I haven’t seen.) Miss Bala, which has already been picked up by Twentieth Century Fox after showings at Cannes and at Toronto and chosen by Mexico as its entry in this year’s Oscar competition, is being compared to Heat and Scarface and called a ticket to Hollywood, should Naranjo want to migrate. (But what makes this film so good is everything that is non-Hollywood about it.) Peter Debruge of Variety (who noted the Hollywood potential) calls Miss Bala a “blistering firecracker.” Diego Luna, speaking at the film’s Mexico City premiere (and an executive producer with his pal Gael García Bernal), noted this film’s relevance to its place and time and said “we are in the midst of a war that we wanted to believe was not affecting us.” Naranjo tackles the very violent country that Mexico has become from a fresh angle and with a distinctive, quiet virtuosity.
As Mike D’Angelo noted with surprise in his Cannes coverage, the film was shown there out of competition. It was also shown at Toronto, and included in the New York Film Festival, where it was screened for this review It is scheduled for limited US release October 14, 2011 (Twentieth Century Fox), UK release October 28, and in France February 1, 2012.
DIRECTOR: GERARDO NARANJO
WRITER: GERARDO NARANJO, MAURICIO KATZ
CAST: STEPHANIE SIGMAN,IRENE AZUELA, NOE HERNANDEZ, GABRIEL HEADS, JAMES RUSSO