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August 2012

Miss Bala

cast: Stephanie Sigman, Noe Hernandez, Irene Azuela, Jose Yenque, and Juan Carlos Galvan

director: Gerardo Naranjo

113 minutes (15) 2011
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2

RATING: 9/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Miss Bala

Purportedly based on the real-life story of a Mexican beauty queen with ties to organised crime, Gerardo Naranjo's Miss Bala is everything that a contemporary crime movie should be. Highly visual and yet intensely human, the film offers a moving portrait of what it feels like to live in a world that is dominated by corruption, selfishness and crime.

Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) is a 17-year-old living in Mexico City. Deprived of her mother at a young age, Laura spends all of her time looking after her ageing father and younger brother. Denied both an education and any hope of a serious career, Laura pins all of her aspirations on becoming a beauty queen. However, because this is Mexico City, even something as simple as signing up to compete in a beauty pageant requires connections and a willingness to bend the rules.

Indeed, when Laura turns up late and pushes to the front of the queue, Laura's well-connected friend silences all complainants by explaining that Laura is 'with' her and that she in turn is 'with' someone even more powerful. This infraction of the rules, though tiny, sets the tone for the rest of the film. According to Naranjo, Mexico may present itself as a society of laws but in reality these laws are nothing more than a thin veneer of respectability. Miss Bala is best understood as an exploration of what it feels like to pass through the veil of bourgeois liberal values and discover the real skills and connections required to flourish in Mexican society.

Laura's passage through the veil begins when she uses her friend's connections to queue-jump at an audition. From there, she rapidly finds herself trapped in the middle of an on-going battle between a gang of Mexican drug traffickers and the various militaristic anti-drug agencies that litter the political landscape of Central America. Naranjo depicts this landscape in starkly monochromatic tones by refusing to distinguish between those who are dealing drugs and those who are attempting to put drug dealers in prison.

In the world of Miss Bala, drug dealers dress like cops, cops behave like drug dealers and everyone takes money from everyone else until the music stops and someone winds up in the boot of a car. Naranjo further expands his critique of Mexican society by presenting the gang leader Lino (Noe Hernandez) as a stereotypical Mexican workingman complete with denim jacket, baseball cap and poorly trimmed moustache. Completely devoid of charisma and traditional sociopathic spark, the figure of Lino suggests that the only difference between a working class Mexican and a Mexican criminal is that the criminal goes to work with an assault rifle. This blurring of the lines between police, criminals and civilians suggests that, for Naranjo, crime corruption and violence are very much part of the fabric of Mexican society.

Having realised that the police and criminals are all part and parcel of the same hideously corrupt system, Laura finds herself being groomed by the oddly paternalistic Lino. Initially, this relationship works quite well as Lino opens doors for Laura in return for a number of little favours. However, the larger the favours become the more Lino elbows his way into Laura's life and the more Laura comes to question her complicity in a system mired in brutality and corruption. Laura's disgust with the society she inhabits plays out in an absolutely wonderful sequence where Laura stumbles her way inelegantly through a beauty pageant only to be rewarded with a resounding and unexpected victory. Fully aware that she only won because of her connections to Lino, Laura weeps uncontrollably as all of her adolescent dreams turn to ash in a shower of glitter. Fully mobbed-up, Laura suddenly has hope for the future but this hope came at the expense of both her innocence and her humanity.

As well as strong performances, good pacing and vertiginous thematic depth, Miss Bala also displays genuine visual panache. The film's depiction of Mexico City is particularly striking as it moves beyond the generic class divides of Tony Scott's Man On Fire (2004), and the frontier decay of Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon A Time In Mexico (2003), to erect a canvas of perpetual night, armed guards, and concrete overpasses that is fiercely reminiscent of Christopher Nolan's Gotham City from The Dark Knight (2008). However, as impressive as this urban jungle undoubtedly is, the film's real muscle lies in its elegant visual composition.

The idea that Mexico is nothing more than an oceanic darkness lurking beneath a thin strip of human pretence is present throughout the film's cinematography. Miss Bala is an intensely dark and moody film and the only time that Naranjo allows us to escape the darkness is in the few sun-kissed moments when Laura is attempting to pass herself off as an innocent civilian. Compared to the shadows of Laura's day-to-day existence, the floodlit wonderland of the beauty pageants, shopping trips and garden parties seems both grotesquely fake and beautifully alluring.

Equally impressive is the way that Naranjo and his cinematographer Matyas Ederly shoot all of the film's criminal activity from behind parked cars, window frames and concrete pillars. Aside from reinforcing the film's claustrophobic atmosphere, this corner-of-the-eye compositional motif lends the film's criminality a sense of both ubiquity and clumsiness, as though the corruption were so pervasive that the Mexican underworld keeps seeping out into the open.

Another interesting visual motif is that of decapitation. Naranjo and Ederly frequently shoot Sigman either from the shoulders down or from behind in such a way as to hide her face. This visual decapitation not only highlights the precarious nature of Laura's situation, it also depersonalises the character in much the same way as Lino's lack of charisma makes him appear ordinary. We do not see Laura's face because, according to Naranjo, there is nothing special about Laura and her descent into the Mexican underworld is no different to that of thousands of ordinary working Mexicans.

Miss Bala is everything that a contemporary crime film should be. Exquisitely shot and flawlessly paced, it uses the crime genre as a tool to dissect and lay bare the failings of Mexican society. Beautifully made and intensely thought provoking it does to Mexico what The Wire did to America, Melville's Army Of Shadows did to wartime France, and Garrone's Gomorrah did to southern Italy.



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