Wednesday, 1 February 2012

MISS BALA - Compelling Mexican crime drama succeeds in spite (or because) of its incredibly passive lead character. Set against the backdrop of the Mexican drug wars, it's one of the most powerful crime pictures you're likely to see.

Miss Bala (2011) dir. Gerardo Naranjo
Starring: Stephanie Sigman, Noe Hernandez, Irene Azuela, James Russo


By Greg Klymkiw

Mexico's drug wars have claimed more victims than the theatres of war in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. This is an astonishing statistic, though I must admit I find it strangely disingenuous that the makers of Miss Bala go out of their way to distinguish between the illegality of either conflict. Iraq and Afghanistan claimed thousands of innocent lives and frankly, I even consider the military on "our" side to be part of that equation. The illegality of drugs and the immorality of corporate colonization aren't much different to my way of thinking. They're both evil and they both kill people.

That said, Gerardo Naranjo has crafted an eminently compelling drama set against the backdrop of Mexico's utterly insane narcotics "industry" and its reign of terror and violence which drags the innocent to the same playing field as the guilty. It is a strange odyssey Naranjo lays out for us to partake in since the journey is through the eyes of film's central character, Laura Guerrero (fashion model Stephanie Sigman) who is, without a doubt, one of the most passive figures I've seen in any recent contemporary film.

Laura and her best friend Jessica (Irene Azuela) are dirt-poor young beauties from the Mexican border town of Baja and with no real opportunities to escape the endless cycle of poverty and abuse, they leave their squalid homes behind and sashay downtown to enter a beauty pageant - hoping they'll be showered with fame and riches. They find themselves in the V.I.P. back room of a seedy nightclub where low level thugs and corrupt cops party with the bevy of beauty contest hopefuls and demand sex in exchange for the dubious influence the scumbags claim to have with the organizers of the pageant.

In the midst of this orgy of booze-swilling sexual exploitation, a reluctant Laura finds herself alone in a bathroom when a guerilla-warfare-like strike upon the club from a gang led by the slimy, charismatic drug-lord Lino Valdez (Noe Hernandez) results in the wholesale execution of everyone within. Laura escapes, but is unaware of the extent of the slaughter. Seeking safety, but also information about her missing friend Jessica, Laura is plunged into a nightmare where she is forced to participate in one illegal act after another.

This is where the movie just keeps getting stranger with every minute. While she might have the active goal of pure survival, so many of her actions are spurred on by submissively following the orders of Lino - implicating her ever-deeper in a net of criminal activity. Lino also has his eye on Laura as more than just a mule for his various criminal activities, but a full-blown moll to service all his sexual desires.

Director Naranjo creates a world rife with violence and exploitation. The steady, deliberate pace creates a sense of nightmare for both Laura and, since the action is through her eyes, the audience. There's a dirge-like sense that nothing will get better, and in fact, the insanity Laura is embroiled in gets increasingly worse.

In this sense, her passivity in order to survive becomes her most active characteristic and the movie creates an indelible portrait of innocence lost. Curiously, it's not so much a sense of the corruption of Laura's purity since said corruption is almost inadvertent. Like all innocents, she in the wrong place at the right time.

The chilling option posed is always the same: "I can help you, but you have to do something for me." In crime as in war, exploitation always boils down to tit-for-tat. It's the only glimmer of hope for survival.

Finally, like all wars, drug-related or not, it is the innocent who suffer the greatest loss - loss of life, and in Laura's case, loss of soul.

Miss Bala packs a roundhouse wallop. It's a stark, terrifying spiral into an amoral world that drags all of us down the drain and as such, is one of the most powerful crime pictures you're likely to see this year. Or any year in recent memory.

"Miss Bala" is in limited theatrical release via Mongrel Media. It will be playing at the AMC theatres in Toronto and Montreal. It made its debut in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2011 Cannes International Film Festival and was Mexico's official entry to the Foreign Language Oscars.