The second feature from Gerardo Naranjo, Miss Bala is a searing, brutal film set in the midst of Mexico’s vicious drug war. Laura (played by the terrific Stephanie Sigman), her bedroom walls covered in images torn from the pages of fashion magazines, is a stunning but poor young woman who dreams of winning the Miss Baja California beauty contest. Unless that happens, she’s stuck in a mundane existence caring for her father and young brother. But the night before her audition, she witnesses an attack by members of a cartel on a club filled with cops, gangsters and their girlfriends. She manages to dodge the hail of bullets, escaping unharmed, but loses her friend Suzu in the chaos. After one terrible error on Laura’s part, she’s plunged into a morass of betrayal, corruption and violence.
Naranjo has made a very different film from his 2008 debut, Voy a explotar, a tragically romantic love story about two young runaways, filled with pop culture references. Miss Bala is darker, deeper and more haunting; for Laura, there is no escape. When she seeks help from a traffic cop in finding Suzu, she’s instead delivered into the hands of the criminals who shot up the club, and their very unglamorous leader, Lino (Noe Hernandez). Instead of killing her, he does something almost worse, forcing her to become a pawn and accomplice in his war with the government. In return, he will do what he can to help her win the beauty contest, except that too is little more than a set-up.
It’s a gripping story told in the style of a very un-Hollywood thriller, with the action and suspense stemming from a disturbingly realistic portrayal of violence. ‘I wanted to make a social film, but I wanted to put it in the frame of an action or suspense film, a thriller. I wanted it to have another layer of movie-making, so people weren’t put off by the idea of a â€œpoliticalâ€ film,’ said Naranjo at an interview during the London Film Festival. ‘There was no practical reason for making this movie, but I had a social and moral obligation. It’s a very sad subject, it’s a dark thing, something we’re not proud of. There are some people who think that we shouldn’t make movies like this, that they’re promoting the problem. If we give the problem a face and identify what’s happening, there are other people who think it’s a very unpatriotic act. Obviously we don’t agree with that.’
In the film, the line between the police and the criminals is disturbingly blurred; corruption is ingrained, and the gangs act with shocking impunity. High-ranking officials are murdered, with one DEA agent’s body strung up from a bridge, dangling over passing traffic. Laura, out of fear for her own life and the safety of her family, has little choice but to do as Lino demands. ‘The criminals are the law,’ said Naranjo. ‘People in Mexico are living in fear. That was the origin of the film.’
Laura is very much at the centre of Miss Bala (which means ‘bullet’), the camera almost never leaving her. This was a very conscious decision by the filmmaker: ‘Other movies about crime in Mexico are all told from the criminal’s point of view, almost to justify their actions. I wanted to talk about the experience of the victim, someone who was alien to the criminal world. I saw the news about this beauty queen who was arrested with all these criminals, so we decided to explain how these two realities that are so distant can meet. I was also very upset about how the media portrayed the criminals, with the gold chains, the women, the orgies and the drugs, like it’s a constant party. When we researched we discovered it was nothing like that. The life of a criminal is much more pathetic, with a lot of fear and paranoia.’
Miss Bala is bleak but engrossing, mixing the political message with some excellent filmmaking and cinematography. In creating such a compelling picture, Naranjo and Stigman have drawn much needed attention to an ongoing tragedy - as the film reveals in its closing moments, more than 30,000 people have been killed in the drug war since 2006.
Watch the trailer: