After well-received stops at Cannes, Toronto and New York, the fourth feature from I’m Gonna Explode director Gerardo Naranjo is set to represent Mexico in fine style at AFI Fest presented by Audi, starting November 3, 2011.
Torn from the headlines, Miss Bala pitches beauty queen aspirant Laura into the murky world of the Tijuana drug cartels – it’s the title of Miss Baja California she’s going for, but bala means “bullet”, plenty of which are expended before the end of the film. The real-life Miss Sinaloa (also named Laura) was indeed arrested for her association with the Mexican drug gangs, but this is no docudrama. Laura here is an innocent, drawn into the underworld through being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and buffeted from dangerous situation to dangerous situation by the twin expediencies of self-preservation and having no other choice.
Indeed, we are almost as bewildered as she when she’s inexplicably crowned at the pageant halfway through, but it swiftly becomes apparent that there are advantages to quietly charismatic gang boss Lino in having a beauty queen under his thumb. Naranjo opens the film with an extended shot from directly behind her head, and returns several times to that point of view, like an old-fashioned computer game, taking us on a first-person tour of the drug wars. Men’s faces are consistently hidden by cap brims, shadows, shallow focus or police masks, and for all the action that takes place, he keeps us close to Laura, showered with debris whilst cowering in the front seat of a car or under a bed, the soundtrack exploding with gunfire. Not that he cannot stage a set-piece – he shows us a rather terrific street battle as Laura is ferried through to a waiting truck, and her first encounter with the criminals is ushered in by their eerie background roof descent as she turns the corner of a low-rent club bathroom.
The deliberate avoidance of freneticism and violent antics pays dividends as great as those provided by DP Mátyás Erdély’s elegant long-take camerawork, and the willowy, doe-eyed Stephanie Sigman as the appealing and resilient Laura, but that is about as far as it goes. This is not an examination of the Mexican drug problem, nor the study of a character caught in a tricky moral net; we know next to nothing of Laura, save that she seems to be a good-natured family girl, loyal to the search for her missing friend, and a more or less decent sort not comfortable with the way she wins her crown, who does the right thing in the end. The oft-repeated device of having the back of her head lead the camera makes her a sort of blank everywoman, as though the film is a thrill ride for the spectator, thrown into one dangerous situation after another and denied full knowledge of what exactly is going on.
And that’s really the point of the whole enterprise. Making crime boss Lino a sympathetic-seeming sort muddies the waters (cleared up by an unexpected, understated and arguably unnecessary ending for him) – how much more intriguing if we’d shared his view of the back of her head at one of the film’s climactic points. But that would have violated the narrow viewpoint to which Naranjo confines us in order to evoke the same general uncertainty and fear as Laura experiences. It’s less that we are to sympathize with her, than actually feel like her. The morality of exploiting such a messed-up real-life situation as no more than a violent backdrop to an audience thrill ride is dubious at best, but there’s no denying the surprising restraint and frequent excitement with which Naranjo pulls it off.