Miss Bala (2011)
Miss Bala is screening at the New York Film Festival on Saturday, October 1 and Sunday, October 2, 2011.
Miss Bala opens with the camera following the story’s heroine from behind with her face never fully revealed until a shot a few minutes in when she abruptly turns around. It is representative of director Gerardo Naranjo’s style in which what he reveals on and off screen ratchets up the tension in his new film loosely inspired by Laura Zúñiga, who won the beauty pageant title of Nuestra Belleza Sinaloa in 2008 and was subsequently involved with a drug cartel.
In Miss Bala, Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) and her friend Suzu enter the pageant for Miss Baja California, which for those who don’t know is a state of Mexico and not to be confused with the U.S. state. (The movie’s title is a pun on the pageant, and when translated from Spanish, is “Miss Bullet” and there are plenty of bullets here.) When Laura and Suzu go to a nightclub, armed thugs storm the place leaving a pile of dead bodies. Laura cannot find Suzu and Laura’s search for her gets her involved with La Estrella drug cartel leader Lino (Noe Hernandez). With the endangerment of her father and pre-teen brother, Laura quickly finds herself an involuntary pawn of this gangster whose plans involve a cell phone, a DEA agent, bundles of cash, and a lascivious general.
Naranjo expertly creates suspense simply by where he puts Sigman in the frame and interspersing that with off-screen sounds. He may hold the camera so close to her that the viewer’s inability to see possible danger around her creates anxiety or he leaves her with a gaping empty space in which menace can enter at any moment. For example, we know from establishing shots that a gangster sits right next to Lau, but Naranjo frames only Laura in the shot in near close-up. Knowing the gangster is there but being unable to see him or his reactions or what he is about to do heightens our unease and the method keeps us as disoriented as Laura herself is. Naranjo also uses this method of dolling out partial information using darkness and playing with a small depth of field. Sigman is often in focus while a distant but approaching threat in the same frame appears and starts off out of focus. But on occasion, Naranjo opens up the frame, and in one memorable shot, we see an explosion on the horizon, a wedding party surreally driving by, followed by police cars, and then Laura on foot at roadside.
Another source of tension comes from Naranjo leaving Lino’s feelings about Laura vague. Sometimes, he threatens her and sometimes he is concerned with her safety and tries to help her. For a drug kingpin, Lino is relatively subdued, which in a way makes him more frightening and puzzling given the gulf between his surface disposition and his brutal achievements. Both Sigman and Hernandez are completely convincing in their roles.
The only real problematic element of Miss Bala comes from Laura having minimal agency. While this may reflect Mexicans’ general helplessness when it comes to the country’s drug wars, it limits the film’s dramatic potential when the protagonist is a powerless pawn. Nevertheless, Miss Bala is a striking experience that highlights a grave crisis in Mexico in visceral fashion.