When the ambitious Mexican film “Miss Bala” made its Mexican debut last September, more than one local newspaper article questioned whether the film should have been made at all. Indeed, the latest project from director Gerardo Naranjo ("I’m Gonna Explode") is an uncomfortable and horrifying journey into the grit and brutality of the country’s cartel-fueled violence, a journey devoid of the neatly packaged shoot-‘em-up heroics typical of Hollywood’s action flicks. It’s dark stuff. But Naranjo’s unapologetically ruthless interpretation is also what makes his newest statement piece both spellbinding and provocative.
“Miss Bala” roughly translates to Miss Bullet, a cunning reference to both the main protagonist, unlikely Baja beauty queen Laura Guerrero (played by the model-turned-actress Stephanie Sigman), and the entrenched violence of the region. Subtitles spell out that cartel violence has killed more than 36,000 people since 2006. It’s telling, however, that in the short interim between the film’s production and US distribution, that tally has swelled to more than 47,000; some critics warn even that number could be too low.
The story, based loosely on the true story of disgraced former beauty queen Laura Zunega, is told through the eyes of a poor 23-year-old from Tijuana who enters the local pageant on a whim. Laura’s quiet country life is turned upside down after she witnesses the bloody murders of several discotheque patrons – including cops and a U.S. federal agent – by members of the local gang La Estrella. In the attack’s chaotic aftermath, Laura is kidnapped by gang leader Lino (played with a bestial quality by Noe Hernandez). Captivated by her beauty, Lino also shrewdly recognizes Laura’s value and uses her as a pawn in the gang’s rapidly escalating schemes before she is eventually captured and framed by the government for a host of La Estrella’s crimes.
The unrelenting tension of the film is enhanced by Naranjo’s use of long, unbroken takes – there are only 130 cuts in the entire movie – and an almost complete lack of a soundtrack. In one memorable scene, Lino drives Laura to the beach and silently rapes her in the cab of his pickup. It is an outcome sickening in its apparent inevitability. The camera pans the beach at sunrise, the drug lord’s truck a dark blot on an otherwise beautiful tableau and the crashing waves a welcome respite from the malicious silence of the night.
Written by Naranjo and Mauricio Katz, the script is a tangle of deception and double crosses that blurs the line between good guys and bad with a series of twists that emphasize the entrenched nature of corruption. The minimization of Laura’s character begins the first time we meet her, with an opening shot from behind to obscure her face. The prevalence of such shots throughout the film deprives Laura of her identity and humanity and adds to the sense of powerlessness that pervades the movie's 113 minutes as her silencing gradually becomes a metaphor for her homeland.
The question for American audiences accustomed to sexed-up cartel dramas like Stephen Soderbergh’s "Traffic," and the more recent heroics of Zoe Saldana in "Columbiana,” is why doesn’t Laura fight back? Why doesn’t she just pick up a gun and shoot her kidnapper and rapist? In a society that has robbed Laura completely of her power, repurposed her identity, and stolen away her family, perhaps the question instead should be, why would she? In the real world, having nothing left to lose is hardly the motivating factor the film industry makes it out to be.
Ultimately “Miss Bala,” like other recent Mexican films depicting the drug war, does not offer viewers much in the way of hope. Justice, for Laura, is not served. As smoke billows from the skyline early in her ordeal and gunfire crackles faintly, a white limousine rolls past, its celebrating, formally attired occupants happily waving bouquets from the skylight – a wedding procession perhaps, or a Quinceañera? Life goes on, but how many more Laura Guerreros are out there, their fates uncertain, their voices muffled by the harsh directives of men with walkie-talkies and bullets.
Miss Bala opens in the US Jan. 20 and has been nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category.