Daddy was right. She shouldn't have gone to the pageant.
Murky is one of those words which have been used, and misused, too many times. However, Gerardo Naranjo (his excellent I'm Gonna Explode still lingers in my memory) has captured the visceral murkiness of the drug wars and institutional corruption in Northern Mexico in Miss Bala, where nothing is what seems to be, where the violence has become as much as part of daily life as the weather. Miss Bala is not only a dramatic example of cinema vérité at its best, but also a gripping thriller on its own right. Issue based cinema can also be entertaining, and Miss Bala certainly is, with its fast pace and more turns and twists than a plate of drunken spaghetti. Yet it left a sour taste in the mouth long after having viewed it.
Laura Guerrero (model turned actress Stephanie Sigman is admirable in her first role), a 23 year old young woman, jokes with her friend that the prize for the winner of the pageant to choose Miss Baja California is not only the crown, but also to sleep with one of those rich guys behind it. If she had known how prophetic were those words! Laura is just a young woman who wants to get out of her rather plodding life in a provincial city in the North of Mexico, to make some money, joining the queue of the many others who aspire at something else in their lives.
By being on the wrong place at the wrong time, Laura becomes involved in the violent drug wars ravaging the Northern provinces of the country, as she witnesses the attack on a night club used by the police by a gang of narcos, led by Lino Valdez (Noe Hernández is admirable in his portrayal of Lino's psychopathic intensity and intelligence), the battles between the narcos and the estate para-military police being openly warfare, those scenes being admirably set up by Naranjo. Three tense days follow, during which she becomes a drug mula for the traffickers between the USA and Mexico, worrying for the fate of her little brother and her father, a winner of the crown of Miss Baja California after the rather convincing intervention of Lino, and a sexual pawn who is used by both Lino and General Duarte (Miguel Couturier), the commander of the estate police force – she was right, she became the prize for the General...
Stephanie Sigman's performance is one of the best I have watched in recent times with her ability to portray the wide range of human emotions crossing the character of Laura Guerrero, the young woman caught as an unwilling pawn in the narco war, as she witnesses the atrocities that happen in front of her eyes, betrayed by those who thought she could trust upon, and, ultimately, realizing she was as much as an expendable pawn as the American DEA agent, Kike Camara (José Yenque), was, murdered in an horrific fashion in front of her. As much of Mexican society is.
Naranjo does not moralize in Miss Bala, he constructs instead a vivid picture of how is to live in a society where brutal violence is a daily occurrence that can erupt at any moment anywhere, where institutional corruption means that no one is what seems to be, where the narcos, los valientes (the fearless) are seen by many as another players in this war rather than as mere criminals, where both authorities, the estate police. and the traffickers benefit from each other as parasites do.
When the last scene of Miss Bala is over, I just did not know any longer what was what in this mêlée. This is what Naranjo has so admirable conveyed, that behind that apparent façade of social order being imposed by force there is only a desolate land: existential and social emptiness.
Miss Bala is out in DVD in Britain on 20th February 2012.
A Metrodome Distribution release.
There are no special features in the DVD.