Is nothing sacred? In Gerardo Naranjo’s Mexico of Miss Bala, the answer is a blunt no. Drug trafficking has infiltrated all spheres of society; you don’t know who’s on the make. Not even beauty pageants are off limits.
Naranjo takes you into a circle of hell through the point of view of a pretty Everywoman, Laura (former model Stephanie Sigman in her film debut). Naranjo sets the audience on edge immediately by having the camera follow Laura with her back to the camera, putting the audience on an equal footing with her. We can only see so much in the frame, and like Laura, we don’t know what’s going to intrude from the outside. It calls to mind the tracking shot of Monica Bellucci before the brutal rape scene in the infamous Irreversible. The effect in Miss Bala is equally as menacing.
Against her father’s wishes, Laura takes a day off work to join her best friend Suzu (Lakshmi Picazo) for the Miss Baja completion in Tijuana. (The “bala” of the title means bullets.) Both women advance to the next round set for the next day, but before they return home, Suzu meets her boyfriend at a nightclub, and Laura straggles along. Then the plot takes a turn that epitomizes the “wrong time/wrong place” scenario, and stretches it to the breaking point. As she’s leaving the club’s bathroom, Laura witnesses men with automatic weapons creeping into the building from a narrow window. With nowhere to escape, she’s cowering under a sink when one of the gunmen approaches her and asks how many are around the dance floor. She tells him she doesn’t know. He then asks if she recognizes him. She shakes her head no, and he tosses her wad of dollar bills—a reward, a bribe, and the first of many bargains made at gunpoint.
Her actions underscore the film’s tension—just as much as the slow-burning, long, gliding takes—because she doesn’t play by the victim’s playbook. She’s the film’s main riddle, especially since the director’s worldview vision becomes apparent within the first half-hour. She’s a pawn and the audience’s surrogate, but she also makes many mistakes, costing at least one life. Her focus on just staying alive turns into a Sisyphean task.
The storyline is efficient and engrossing, especially in the first 40 minutes, though the script strains a bit by constantly putting Laura in jeopardy. And sometimes the zigzagging plot hits a snag, losing a little bit of credibility—one gang leader always knows where to find her. And would a Drug Enforcement Administration officer, who stops and frisks Laura, just let her go scot-free, knowing she has just had contact with gang members under surveillance?
However, the paranoia is contagious, though familiar. Another recent film shares Miss Bala’s dour and lucid assessment of human nature, Gomorrah from Italy, where, correspondingly, the mafia’s tentacles reach all sectors of Italian life, not just limited to the not-as-wealthy south. In a non-coincidence, illicit drugs feed the underground machines in both.
Because the biggest international market for Mexican narcotics (whether grown there or funneled from elsewhere) is the United States, the film also offers what could be interpreted as a wake-up call: the DEA is fighting an uphill battle on the war on drugs and losing—badly. It also conveys more of a visceral shock and a pungent point of view than in the award-winning documentary El Sicario, Room 164, an 80-minute interview with one killer/torturer/narco trafficker/police officer. (It backs up Bala’s vision of endemic corruption.) Wearing a black hood for the entire sit-down in the same hotel room he tortured his victims, the interviewee matter-of-factly describes his easy entry into the lucrative drug trade. With a marker and a notebook, he diagrams the best way to shoot someone driving in a car—and he knows where the countless bodies are buried. We assume he’s telling the truth, but the purely subjective Miss Bala is more searing and credible, making its closing statistic of the 36,000 lives lost in the war on drugs between 2006 and 2011 almost unnecessary. El Sicario is cold; Miss Bala is hot.