Most existences on earth are marginal; the majority of people live on the edges of some kind of war. That the woman and man at the center of Miss Bala swing into each other’s orbit is itself no great coincidence. She’s Laura (Stephanie Sigman), the cheerful 23-year-old daughter of a Tijuana clothing merchant, and he’s Lino (Noe Hernandez), a taciturn, hard-eyed, soft-voiced drug trafficker about whose past we glean almost nothing. Both hail from humble if not desperate backgrounds; both aspire to transcend social determinism via archetypal routes to glamour and power: just as Lino asserts himself through terror and illegal commerce, Laura, however haphazardly, hopes to embody someone’s notion of the ideal woman by entering the Miss Baja California competition. Her first, fleeting encounter with him occurs when a dance party is turned into a massacre by Lino and his confederates. They meet again when she is so naïve as to seek out the police for help. In some perverse variation on the romantic comedy, the two keep crossing paths. Laura spends much of Miss Bala in a state of shock, while Lino seems to quickly intuit how best to exploit her allure while ostentatiously exchanging favors. He can ensure she wins the Miss Baja crown; she can serve as a gorgeous decoy in his criminal dealings.
A fascinating about-face for Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo, Miss Bala—co-written by Naranjo and Mauricio Katz and loosely based on actual events—surveys the current state of play in the drug war and offers commentary through a procession of absurdities, ironies, and largely uncontextualized mayhem. The gangsters and the DEA agents are equally menacing and seem to favor the same black SUVs; a beauty contest audience bursts into wild applause for a catatonic contestant; a flaming tire rolls by during an urban shoot-out as though it has emerged from a cartoon, traversing a stretch of asphalt covered in blood, bullet casings, and gasoline. Despite an incongruous, statistics-heavy closing title card, Miss Bala can no more be reduced to a hand-wringing docudrama about the escalation of Mexico’s drug-related violence than Take Shelter can be called a treatise on overcoming mental illness. These films are personal statements about individuals ceding control to forces beyond their comprehension—personal statements that just happen to dovetail nicely with urgent social issues.
“I’d arrived at a place where i felt like I wasn’t challenging myself that much,” says Naranjo, “so I decided to do something that I really didn’t know how to do. My previous films had a little bit of social commentary, but it was from a bourgeois point of view, trying to denounce commodification or conservatism. When I started to develop Miss Bala I felt I was responding to something far more urgent that’s in the air. To the fear.” Speaking during the Toronto International Film Festival last September, by which point Miss Bala had already seen its share of plaudits and detractors, Naranjo emphasized his latest film’s conspicuous shift in both style and content from his preceding work, whether the privileged teens playing out lovers-on-the-run melodrama under a mesh of Godardian alienation techniques (the deliriously stylish and witty 2008 I’m Gonna Explode) or privileged young adults negotiating disastrous relationships (the clever but flat 2006 Drama/Mex). “The directors I admire tend to change a lot between films,” says Naranjo. “Maybe not often with regards to form, but with subject matter for sure. Before, I felt that I was a filmmaker but had yet to really show it. I trusted so deeply in the present, in improvisation. I know I’m shifting. The question now, for me, has to do with whether or not I can maintain this.”
Decapitation, appropriated from online images of Islamist militant groups, has in the last few horror-show years become the calling card of those narcos most ruthlessly determined to incite fear and paralysis. It’s a way of undermining, symbolically and viscerally, the Mexican government’s already threadbare authority, and what for all of us constitutes our most basic sense of the individual. (It’s also the central motif of El hombre sin cabeza, or The Headless Man, a book-length essay by investigative journalist Sergio González Rodríguez, whose still untranslated studies of violence in the Mexican north are essential reading for anyone invested in the subject.)
Headlessness is the emblem of the new Mexican abyss. Which makes it that much more appropriate that the focal point of Miss Bala—the thing we either gaze upon or gaze through—is Laura’s head, to which the camera affixes itself, Dardenne-like, never straying from what she witnesses, either directly or by implication. Laura keeps her head on, yet trauma renders her incapable of processing what’s happening to her; her striking eyes alternately convey shock or desperate calculation; her lean, angular beauty of no real ethnic specificity makes her a sort of Mata Hari (Lino nicknames her Canelita, or “Little Cinnamon,” perhaps a comment on her possessing just the right skin tone, neither indigenous nor white). Sigman’s performance is simple and contained, yet it brims with subtle shifts. The role’s greatest challenge is the character’s enforced passivity, so Naranjo and Sigman try to keep Laura physically active, crawling along floors, sneaking out of windows, driving, walking, looking in vain for a place to hide. (Hers is the counterpoint to another of 2011’s most divisive female performances, that of Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method, another young woman under extreme duress.)
“I knew Stephanie was capable of anchoring the film,” says Naranjo, “but I still felt there were two distinct traps we could fall into. One was a melodrama in which Laura is always crying and just being obnoxious, and the other was this iconic asceticism that’s so dominant in Latin American cinema. I want to keep very far from the contemplative trend that’s often just about putting the camera somewhere and observing. It’s a method I respect but I’m not interested in adopting. I feel compelled to work more expressively.”
At Toronto Naranjo acknowledged just how tricky the narco-drama subgenre can be to navigate. The subject of countless movies and telenovelas, pop songs and folk art, it might be only a slight exaggeration to say that los narcos seem poised to become nearly as ubiquitous in Mexican culture as masked wrestlers or the Virgin of Guadalupe. It’s incumbent upon any artist approaching the subject to devise some fresh method of engaging a saturated audience. Naranjo’s approach is brilliantly counterintuitive: instead of shaking us awake, he puts us in a trance.
“I’m not trying to show reality,” says Naranjo. “I’m trying to show a state of mind, a feeling that prevails in the society. The narco film is commonly very didactic. You know: we’re poor and the government has failed us and now we have to take power; selling drugs or killing people is the new revolution; and so on. These films tend to be full of over-explanatory dialogue. We thought maybe for our film we could convey a message not through dialogue but through an ambience. And we thought, if that’s our voice, the creation of this particular atmosphere, then maybe the enemy is the cut, because with every cut you have to start again, to re-establish where we are, to re-establish what’s been set in motion.”
There is something in the slow, roaming, steady gaze of Mátyás Erdély’s camera, in its long somnambulistic takes, that lures the viewer into a very particular—indeed, narcotic—state of disorientation. This is the film’s strongest quality: the quiet, claustrophobic relentlessness. Miss Bala aligns us with Laura for its duration, cultivating a languorous, drifting nightmare from which you awake only to find yourself hopelessly lost and alone in some cold, anonymous, unfamiliar place. If in other kinds of films a cut can be a liberation, in Miss Bala, there is clearly no escape.
José Teodoro is a Toronto-based critic, filmmaker, and playwright.
© 2012 by José Teodoro