The second film of the day, and one of the reasons why I so enjoy the Un Certain Regard section of this festival: for among the intentional oddities, and the boring experiments there are usually a number of gems that fit the competition’s manifesto of presenting films that are “worth a look” extremely well, Miss Bala is an incredibly terse, and successfully tense situational horror/thriller.
The film begins conventionally enough, with Laura (Stephanie Sigman), attempting to enter the Miss Baja California with her friend Suzu, and then joining her at a club with its own police-devoted VIP section (or so it seems), in order to – as Suzu suggests – get in with some powerful men who can help them win the contest. Following an altercation with one of said policemen, Laura finds herself in the toilet, surrounded by armed gang members, who shoot the place up, leaving Laura to survive, but to fret over her friend’s fate. Attempting to track down what happened to her, Laura ends up being delivered to the same cartel, after approaching the wrong policeman, and becomes embroiled in an endlessly progressing spiral of events alongside the charismatically malignant cartel leader.
Miss Bala presents a Mexico that is rotting from the inside: corruption runs rampant to the extent that no one is to be trusted, regardless of what their badge might suggest, drug trafficking and running gun battles are an everyday occurrence, and the value of human life is far less than the appeal of power and wealth. It is an intensely provocative backdrop to paint, and sadly, it isn’t far from the truth, as the post-script that runs before the final credits announces. Following the true story vibe, Gerardo Naranjo actually based the script (written in conjunction with Mauricio Katz) on a news story about a real Miss Latin America – Laura Zuniga – who was arrested, imprisoned for forty days, and stripped of her crown when she was found in a car, in the company of seven men known to be involved in organized crime, as well as assault rifles, ammunition and over fifty thousand dollars. An intriguing story indeed.
There is nothing new here: filmmakers have long used their art to convey outrage and despair at the state of their country – some two years ago, I reviewed Joe Padilha’s excellent Elite Squad for OWF, and I can’t help but draw comparisons here. This too is an enormously impressive film that balances enthralling social and political commentary with a compelling central story-line, without abandoning its gripping narrative or excellent characterizations. It is a no-holds-barred portrait of the underbelly of a broken country, reflecting the reality of Mexico’s problems, and not sticking to the glamorous myth of the white beaches, and the wealthy European and American’s holiday playground. And to force that dichotomy even further, Naranjo presents both sides of the coin, juxtaposing the faux-glamour and opulence of the Miss Baja California beauty contest directly against the horrifically violent world of a Mexican drug cartel. In one incredibly impressive sequence, the story seamlessly transports the viewer from one scene in which a DEA Agent is killed and left to hang from a bridge, which Laura bears witness to, with her appearance in the beauty pageant. I might suggest Naranjo was being deliberately manipulative, if I wasn’t so damn impressed with it.
The contrast to Elite Squad is that Miss Bala is seen from the point of view of a civilian who ends up unwittingly bound up in the action, an approach that adds a jarringly claustrophobic element to the film’s immediate impact – rather than someone equipped to defend themselves, we follow Laura, and share in her terror and the growing sense of dread that she cannot possibly walk away from these events without some huge price. Heavy praise must go to star Stephanie Sigman, who carries the weight of the role perfectly, segueing from terrified and aghast to emotionally ruined and numb as her life tumbles down a rabbit hole that she couldn’t ever possibly have imagined.
Every force must have an equal opposing force, as science will tell you, and Miss Bala finds the yin to Sigman’s yang in the shape of the excellent Noe Hernandez, whose casual violence and utterly enthralling menace makes Tony Montana look like Tony Danza by comparison. He is animalism personified, a bristling creature who is both completely repellent and oddly charismatic at the same time, and his coldly detached, but enthusiastically evil performance is what films like this live and die on. There is no hint of pantomimey ham, and not one ounce of humor, meaning his malevolence feels pleasantly authentic, which in turn adds an authentic piquancy to the film. Somewhat inexplicably, this is his first foray into feature films. More, please.
Director Naranjo deserves as much credit as his two stars: his organic, intentionally grubby scene presentation is remarkably apt for his subject, and he shoots the action sequences with obvious aplomb. Crucially though, we never really stray from Laura’s side, reinforcing her personal plight through a clever stylistic conceit, which allows for both added engagement (the impressive sound mix makes you think you’re on the street with them) and for Naranjo to skip more expensive wider set-pieces. And thank God, because what he has produced here, in terms of the aesthetic and the generally strong atmospheric work, is very good: a blend of situational horror and politically-laced action thriller that I’d have no trouble recommending to anyone.
The Upside: Featuring exceptional performances by both Stephanie Sigman and Noe Hernandez, and with an incredibly compelling story, Miss Bala is a great achievement by Naranjo, and an impressive way to convey his politicized message about his broken country.
The Downside: Such is the passion behind Naranjo’s attempt to perpetually reinforce the bleakness of Laura’s predicament, that it does almost stray towards the ridiculous when things really begin to escalate.