Friday, January 20, 2012

Miss Bala: A Pretty Face Joins An Ugly War

Miss Bala
Directed By: Gerardo Naranjo
Written By: Gerardo Naranjo and Mauricio Katz
Starring:  Stephanie Sigman and Noe Hernandez
Director of Photography: Matyas Erdely, Editor: Gerardo Naranjo, Art Direction: Ivonne Fuentes, Original Music: Emilio Kauderer
Rated: R for bloody, truthful violence.

There’s a strong dynamic between two very different worlds at the heart of Miss Bala, a Mexican crime saga from director Gerardo Naranjo. Laura, a young woman who has been forced to help a powerful drug lord, watches as a DEA agent is run over, dragged through the street, and hung over a highway, his corpse bloodied and barely hanging together. The drug lords then take her to a fixed beauty pageant, where the bright lights practically blind her, the atmosphere of the event promoting youth, beauty, and love.

This clash of universes, and the fallacy between them, centers the powerfully shot but somewhat hollow drama, which made a splash on the festival circuit last year.Naranjo made some headlines in 2008 with I’m Gonna Explode, a unique exploration of youth and class with the powerful energy adapted from Godard’s Pierret Le Fou (full disclosure; I worked on the subtitles for I’m Gonna Explode while interning for IFC Films). Here, Naranjo is in somewhat stripping down the crime thriller to its essentials—the Italian mafia film Gomorrah might be this film’s distant cousin—though it indulges with its cinematic excess. The outcome is a somewhat mixed result that may interest audiences with its bizarre but true story of a beauty queen involved in the drug war, but rarely finds a way to outlive its genre ties and speak candidly about the issues it raises.
            Problems begin to arise from the beginning as soon as we meet Laura, played by the beautiful Stephanie Sigman. Living in Baja California with her father and brother, Laura has dreams of becoming a beauty queen. But following a friend to a rather sketchy club one night, she becomes witness to a shooting massacre. Looking for her friend, Laura instead finds herself a pawn in the schemes of a powerful cartel, and the object of desire for its powerful leader (Noe Hernandez).

Naranjo plays fast and loose with Laura and our access to her desires. Is she trying to escape? Does she complicity go along? The script provides Laura with a number of “outs” so to say, which she ends up refusing, or only mildly trying at. While some other critics find this conflict fascinating, for me, it kept me at arm’s length to accessing and sympathizing with her. Despite Ms. Sigman’s attempts to create a three dimensional character, I found it hard to understand the motivation of Laura, as she loses her authority as a protagonist.

This is of course very deliberate by Naranjo, but I think part of the issue is that the director seems more involved in his cinematic flair than his characters. Adapting loosely from American masters like De Palma, Socrsese, and Michael Mann, Naranjo uses a series of breathtaking cinematic long takes to create a sense of extreme reality. Often shooting his protagonist from behind her back, the camera glides along in an unflinching matter, and one particular long shot during a cartel battle with police is bravura filmmaking.  

During a press conference following the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival. Naranjo explained that he wanted to make a film that showed the drug war in a unique light, and perhaps the films and telenovelas that populate the cinemas and televisions of Mexico avoid the hard hitting violence he seems intent on showing. But Miss Bala never really explains the issues at the heart of the drug war; it seems perfectly content on its limited perspective of Laura, who is a victim of the war, but provides no perspective into what we really need to understand.

            One might suggest Traffic as a film that gives a larger scope of the very difficult drug war (as well as a number of cinematic flourishes), but Miss Bala at least begins the conversation of filmmakers from Mexico exploring the extreme circumstances to the world.  Naranjo is a filmmaker with an eye for visual flair and detail, and his cold approach to the subject seems ripe for a complex understanding of how the drug war has destroyed millions of lives in Mexico. So perhaps by following Laura, a surrogate for all victims, is the best way to see the unflinching violence. And without any solutions offered, the pains of ­Miss Bala are a cry for help.

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