Thursday, July 18, 2013

Miss Bala: A Bullet in the Guts

Miss Bala
Mexico, 2011
Written and Directed by Gerardo Naranjo

An ordinary young woman from a poor town pins her dreams of escape on a beauty pageant she enters with her friend. In most other cities, in most other countries, this story is an aspirational one, and probably ends one of two ways: either she perseveres through challenges and wins, getting her heart's desire; or she loses, learning a valuable lesson in the process, and life goes on. Except this city is super-violent Tijuana, and this country is drug war–torn Mexico, where few things go as they should, and where ordinary people end up paying the price. This is the premise behind Gerardo Naranjo's relentless Miss Bala.

Laura (the incredible Stephanie Sigman) is a twenty-three-year-old student from a lower middle-class family. Wanting only to secure a better life for her little brother, she enters the Miss Baja pageant. But Laura witnesses a brutal gang attack at a night club, and her friend Suzu (Lakshmi Picazo) disappears. In her attempts to locate Suzu, Laura winds up under the power of Lino (Noé Hernández) and the Estrella drug cartel. He offers her a devil's bargain: as long as she does whatever they ask, they'll let her and her family live, and even help her in the pageant. To protect her family and find her friend, she obeys Lino's orders. Though she doesn't always cooperate fully, somehow her every move brings her deeper into the same criminal world she'd hoped to help her family escape in the first place.

This sort of terrifying, nightmare-like logic drives the plot, such that it only occasionally slows down but never really stops. The film caroms from scene to scene, from beat to violent beat in long takes that Naranjo orchestrates with a fluid, ever-moving camera (reminiscent of his compatriot Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men). His script, based loosely on true events, depicts a country where no authority can be trusted, and no institution, not even a frivolous beauty pageant, is immune to corruption. His vision of Mexico under the cartels is a sort of hellish, Kafkaesque morass that could entrap anyone at any time, a place where doing the right thing always comes back around to bite you. Laura is a stand-in for the people of Mexico: unconcerned with the ultimate aim of either the state or the gangs, yet powerless to do anything but play along with both sides just to try and survive a little longer.

As Laura, Sigman displays a tremendous range, going from weeping to resolved, from huddled in fear to poised like a beauty queen, all at a moment's notice. She is manhandled, degraded, and forced to aid and abet horrible acts, but remains strong and quietly defiant throughout. Even when Laura makes mistakes, Sigman's expressions and body language justify and make her mistakes ring true. Hers is the standout performance, the cog that makes the whole machine run. A less sympathetic lead, and the film becomes a piece of pulp.

Indeed, if there is an issue with Miss Bala, it's one of exploitation. To its credit, gang life is hardly glamorized, but it's hard to say whether Laura needs to be debased and humiliated as much as she is. At the same time, this can be read as a comment on the sort of exploitation a woman would suffer in such a hyper-masculine culture, the sort of place where exploiting your own body seems like a viable pathway out. Clearly, the players in this game have little concern for Laura's individual well-being—and, by proxy, that of the Mexican citizenry—only for securing a win for their side. As such, I never felt that the sexual or violent elements were played for titillation, but considering how often the film directs our gaze towards Sigman's body, you might feel differently.

At any rate, where Miss Bala succeeds most is in allowing us to peel back the veil of American privilege. We get to look in on a society where the rule of law has failed, where security is even more of an illusion than it is here. It is a society where reckless policies on both sides of the border have empowered criminals, tempted the greedy, intimidated the weak-willed, and left the rest few resources with which to upend this unbearable status quo. It is a society that's been shot in the guts and left to bleed out. This is the human cost of the war on drugs: a societal sickness so pervasive, even aspirational stories turn to poison and rot.

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