Dir. Gerardo Naranjo. Mexico. 2011.

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Drug-related crime in Mexico is not a unique subject for films, but no film in recent memory has confronted the issue with such force as Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala, a devastating look into the collusion between drug-related gangs and law enforcement. Caught in the middle is Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), a 23-year-old unassuming woman of limited means whose dream is to enter and win the beauty pageant known as Miss Baja. Naranjo whose last film was called I’m Gonna Explode does just that, taking front and center stage in his most complete and mature work to date and Mexico’s submission for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.


Loosely based on actual events, right from the start we are dropped head first into the arena of the Mexican drug wars. Living at home with her father and young brother, Laura enters the competition for Miss Baja at the suggestion of her friend Suzu (Lakshmi Picazo), but she has no idea what she is getting into. Things start to go wrong almost immediately. Spending the evening with Suzu in a nightclub seems like a pleasant way to pass the evening. What she doesn’t reckon with, however, is the eruption of gunfire in a hit carried out by a local cartel against agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Amidst the play of bursting bullets, Laura loses Suzu in the chaos.


Seeking out a cop sitting outside in his car, she asks him for help in locating her friend. Big mistake. The corrupt cop leads her directly into the hands of a group of nameless terrorists led by local kingpin Lino Valdez (Noe Hernandez) who is in the middle of a war with Mexican and American drug enforcement agencies. After hiding out at her father's house nursing her injuries after being in the vicinity of a gun battle, Lino tells the impressionable Laura that he will help her find Suzu if she is willing to do favors for him. Forced to do the gang’s bidding at the risk of losing her father and little brother and with no one to turn to for help, Laura becomes a passive and willing tool for those bent on greed and violence.


Even the beauty pageant is rigged by the cartel so that Laura can be crowned as Miss Baja to the amazement of the audience and especially the more articulate and vivacious runner up. Fixing the pageant is not done out of kind feelings towards Laura but mainly to give her an audience with a high ranking general who is targeted for an assassination, even though it is murky as to who is working with whom. As Laura, Sigman elicits our empathy with her raw emotion and simple honesty. Like the Mexican people, she is powerless to prevent the brutality around her because all levels of society are complicit in its existence.


Miss Bala is a powerful thriller that is not easy on the nerves but is worth sitting through if only to remind us of the depth of the problem which the director says, lies in the set of values which continue to govern our culture. According to Naranjo, “We have focused so much on the greed and getting ahead of the rest that we have lost sight of the fact that there has to be rules, and there has to be a way of doing things. Everybody is having his own battle to survive and the rules or the law don't exist, so I feel that we need a spiritual revolution.” To that I can only say amen.



Howard Schumann

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