Friday, 17 February 2012
Starring: Stephanie Sigman, Noe Hernandez, Irene Azuela, Jose Yenque
By Alan Bacchus
Despite honourable inclusion in the Cannes En Certain Regard program and the Toronto International Film Festival, Miss Bala has gone much too far under the cinematic radar. It’s a Mexican thriller about a beauty pageant contestant who inadvertently gets roped into a violent drug war served up with a unique point of view on a familiar genre story.
We first meet Laura with her friend, Jessica, auditioning for a Tijuana beauty pageant. Laura indeed passes the test and subsequently gets invited to an industry party. While at the party a group of drug dealers busts in, kills a bunch of DEA officers and kidnaps Jessica, during which Laura, hiding out in the bathroom, comes face to face with the ruthless leader, Lino Valdez, who inexplicably allows her to live.
While searching for Jess the next day, she is kidnapped by Lino and his men, seemingly at random, and instructed to participate in some kind of elaborate scheme or heist. From here on in, Laura inexplicably gets picked up and dropped off several times by Lino. She is forced to drive their getaway car, spy on Mexico’s drug czar and is even forced back into the pageant without preparation; however, it’s rigged for her victory.
Told exclusively from Laura's perspective, Naranjo’s camera never leaves her. It's a risky approach, which alienates the audience for much of the film. At one point there’s a grandiose gun fight in a hotel room, yet we don't see any of it. Instead, we see only the reactions of actor Stephanie Sigman, who plays Laura. The plotting and narrative cause-and-effect is just as alienating and confusing, which only comes together in the final scene.
But there's also something inspiring in Naranjo's rigorous approach. The mystery of the film stems from the unconventional point of view. Every film needs to have a point of view, whether it’s one character, a group of characters, a political side or a shifting point of view. But in Miss Bala our viewpoint into this world is like a racehorse with blinders on. We only know what Laura knows, and Naranjo never wavers from this concept. All of this is part of his grand plan to blindside us with his beautifully set up wallop in the end.
Naranjo’s technique reminds us of the Dardennes Bros’ Le Fils (The Son). In that film Olivier Gourmet was shot exclusively using medium shots, and there was also a grand plan hidden from us until its great reveal. Naranjo’s anamorphic and elegant steadicam long-takes create a different cinematic experience, less like Le Fils and more like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant.
The ending reveals more than just a clever plotting device. It reveals, or perhaps exploits, the entrenched corruption of Mexico’s socio-political infrastructure. Miss Bala is uncompromising and tough, a ruthless picture that puts its hero through the most harrowing journey imaginable. And in the final frame it leaves us with a big question mark suggesting another dangerous journey ahead for Laura Guerrero.