Miss Bala *** ½
Directed by: Gerardo Naranjo
Written by: Mauricio Katz & Gerardo Naranjo.
Starring: Stephanie Sigman (Laura Guerrero), Noe Hernandez (Lino Valdez), Irene Azuela (Jessica Berlanga), Jose Yenque (Kike Camara), James Russo (Jimmy), Miguel Couturier (General Salomón Duarte), Gabriel Heads (Agent Bell).
Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala takes epic, national level violence, and makes it intimate. It looks at the ongoing drug war in Mexico, where since 2006, the army has been warring with the drug cartels, with tens of thousands of casualties caught in the crossfire – not just members of the army and the cartels, but innocent people. Miss Bala is loosely based on a true story, where a would be beauty queen gets caught up in a drug war that is far outside of experience – and there is nothing that she can do about it.
Stephanie Sigman stars as Laura Guerrero, who works selling clothes with her father and little brother, but dreams of a bigger, better life – a life that she may be able to reach if she can win the Miss Baja pageant. She heads off for the audition with her best friend, gets into the pageant, and soon thereafter finds herself at the center of a bloodbath in a nightclub. Cowering in the bathroom, when armed cartel members burst in and open fire on everyone. This would be traumatic enough, but soon, she caught up even more than she already is – all because she was naïve enough to believe the police could help her.
I’m not going to describe what happens next, because the plot twists and turns in Miss Bala are part of the pleasure of watching the film – where the film ends up may seem ridiculous, but as the movie plays out, every twist and turn – and there are a lot of them – seem believable and real. Naranjo mixes genres brilliantly throughout the course of the film – gritty crime drama, melodramatic Mexican soap opera, almost Dardenne like realism at times as well. At the heart of every scene is Sigman, who Naranjo keeps firmly in his cameras gaze for the entire running time. After the nightclub shootout, she seems almost catatonic at times – she is certainly shell shocked – as she just cannot seem to believe just how much she has to go through. And yet, despite that shock, she remains an intelligent woman – in every moment, she has to make life and death decisions, and while in retrospect, she makes mistakes, every decision she makes seems like a sensible one at the time she makes them. The other major character is Lino (Noe Hernandez), the leader of the cartel who keeps showing up in Laura’s world. It’s almost comic the way he keeps showing up – like he and Laura are at the center of romantic comedy, as they are constantly drawn together. Lino is a character full of contradictions – we see him brutal and violent at times, and at other times almost tender towards Stephanie, even as he uses and abuses her.
Miss Bala is a delicate balancing act. As I mentioned earlier, Naranjo mixes genres throughout the movie. I was reminded of Gomorrah, the Italian film from a few years ago, which looks at the constant, ever present violence in Naples, and how the mob still controls everything. And yet, Miss Bala is a more intimate film than Gomorrah – which was an expansive film, that looked at multiple story lines and multiple characters, whereas this film centers on a single story – a single woman, and all the violence that she witnesses throughout the film. Yes, at times, this seems like an over the top Mexican soap opera – especially when an Army General arrives on the scene – but the movie never goes over the top in the melodramatic elements of the film. And yes, I was reminded of the Dardenne brothers at times in the movie. Their camera often stares at the faces, or even the back of the heads, of their protagonists, as if by starring long enough, they’ll be able to break through. And Naranajo does that at times with Sigman’s Laura as well – who holds the cameras gaze throughout.Miss Bala is a fascinating, dark, violent, entertaining crime drama, melodrama, character drama, and social issue film all rolled into one. That may seem like too many things for one movie to try and accomplish – but somehow Miss Bala pulls it off.