Film review - Miss Bala

Dir: Gerardo Naranjo

Running time 113 minutes

The violence of Mexico’s drug cartels is impinging daily on the lives of ordinary people. Since 2006, decapitations, corpses left hanging from bridges and body parts found on the beach are just some of the reported atrocities. President Calderon’s decision to use the army to fight the cartels has made little difference and, if anything, has resulted in more bloodshed.

Gerardo Naranjo’s salient film, Miss Bala, offers a vivid portrait of this darker side of Mexico. But rather than just focus on its criminal underworld, Naranjo, and co-writer Mauricio Katz, have painted a broader canvas that confronts head-on Mexico’s socio-political problems, namely the poverty and corruption that have created a lawless vacuum filled by the criminal gangs.

Set in Tijuana, on the Baja California Peninsula, Stephanie Sigman stars as twenty-three-year old Laura. She lives with her father and young brother and they make clothes for a living. Laura and her best friend Suzu decide to enter a local beauty queen contest. The night before their formal audition they visit a local nightclub. It’s raided by a criminal gang who open fire on the clubbers. Laura manages to escape but concerned for her friend, she begs a local cop to help her find Suzu by radioing to his colleagues – instead the policeman delivers Laura into the hands of the criminal gang.

This is the beginning of Laura’s nightmare. Lino (Noe Hernandez), the leader of ‘La Estrella’, takes a liking to Laura and instead of killing her - which would have been the more likely outcome in another border town, Ciudad Juarez - he enlists her help.  First he makes her park a car full of dead bodies outside a US government building as a warning to the Drug Enforcement Administration. When she tries to return home to her family, Lino and the gang follow her there.

Laura is then sent to across the border to San Diego as a mule, carrying money for weapons. On her return to Mexico she is caught in a shoot-out between the army and Lino’s gang. Saved by Lino, he delivers her to the beauty pageant, which she wins. But even this is rigged, it turns out, so that Laura can be used again as bait to lure a prominent army General into a hotel ambush.

Wisely, Naranjo steers clear of too many violent action scenes and leaves the gorier side to the audience’s imagination. Miss Bala is not just a fantastic thriller – it also illustrates how the drug gangs infiltrate everywhere and are the main architects of the savagery that is infecting every level of Mexican society today.

Naranjo does not shy away from exposing all those who have contributed to the nightmare: It’s the American demand for drugs that finance the cartels; the police are shown to be in the pay of the drug barons; and President Calderon’s deployment of the army is represented as chaotic (and ineffectual); With the character of Laura, Naranjo also captures brilliantly the fear and hopelessness felt by ordinary Mexicans who get caught up in the violence.

The cinematography is impressive with Mátyás Erdély’s carefully composed action shots, perfectly balanced by quieter, suspenseful scenes. Interweaving politics (without preaching) into an essentially mainstream film, Naranjo has forged a compelling drama from Mexico’s violent war.

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