Miss Bala: Beauty and the Beasts in a Mexican Drug War

Inspired by truly awful events, Gerardo Naranjo's melodrama is as smart and thrilling as it is tragic

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Eniac Mart’nez Ulloa / Fox International Productions / AP

Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigmun) wants to be Miss Baja California in the worst way. And that’s how she gets her wish: in the worst way.

Miss Bala (bala being Spanish for bullet) is an urgent dispatch from the sidelines of the drug war that consumes our southern neighbor. Based on real events involving Laura Zúñiga, Miss Mexico International of 2009, and the Juárez Cartel of drug dealers, Gerardo Naranjo’s confident, ultra-chic spellbinder is Mexico’s entry in this year’s Academy Awards. If the film doesn’t get nominated next Tuesday, it will be a crime—though not quite as heinous a crime as the ones committed in the movie. (UPDATE: Miss Bala won’t be nominated, because it wasn’t even on the nine-film shortlist released this week. Smells like a conspiracy; somebody call Interpol.) Corruption taints everyone in authority: the cocaine lords, the police, the military and, why not?, the beauty-pageant officials. With $25 billion in drug money at stake, folks have incentive to be culpable. And with, as the film tells us, 36,000 dead from the drug war since 2006, they have reason to be nervous when a tough hombre asks for a favor and adds, “That’s not a request.”

In action films set in the Latin American drug underworld, the good guys in pursuit of bad guys scamper across the roofs of shacks and through the modest homes of the little people. Briefly glimpsed in movies like Fast Five, these civilians are extras. Miss Bala shows them—shows Laura and her family and best friend—as collateral damage in the drug war. Standing in for all those who get wounded in the crossfire, Laura endures the longest run of rotten luck in recent movies, and a nightmare scenario of answered prayers.

(MORE: See Corliss’ review of Fast Five)

Laura, as sketched in the script by Naranjo and Mauricio Katz, is not exactly a little person. Pretty and willowy, she’s been warmed by male appraisal enough to know she has a shot at pageant celebrity, but she doesn’t carry herself with confidence: she has the slouched posture of a tall woman who doesn’t want to intimidate shorter men. In the humble home she shares with her father and young brother, Laura’s bedroom wall is plastered with photos of beauty queens and two magazine headlines that hint at her future: “Alto modo” (high style) and “Fashion victim.” She will achieve one and become the other.

After signing in for the pageant, Laura accompanies a friend to a night club whose heaviest partier are drug dealers. The DEA busts up the soiree with gunfire, and Laura escapes but loses her friend. A kindly traffic cop promises to drive her to the police station—and hands her over to La Estrella, a gang headed by the feral Lino Valdez (Noe Hernandez). Forcing her home address and phone number out of her, he orders Laura to drive a car and park it by a curb, where a confederate opens the trunk and removes a stash; the girl is instantly implicated. Lino’s reward: he’ll fix the pageant so she wins. His price: she will drive into the U.S. with thousands of dollars taped to her midriff and return with drugs and information—two kinds of dope. Mule, sexual toy, accessory to an assassination: every time Laura thinks life can’t get worse, it does.

(MORE: See TIME’s 2008 coverage of the Laura Zúñiga scandal)

In the past decade or so, Mexico has been known for its drug culture and its movie culture. The creative ferment encouraged three directors to start there and spread their wings across the world: Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá tambiėn, the third Harry Potter film), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), Guillermo del Toro (Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth, the Hellboy movies and, for a year or so, before Peter Jackson took it back, The Hobbit).

Naranjo recognizes the strengths of those older three amigos—their narrative ingenuity, fluid camera style and blithe audacity—and synthesizes them in Miss Bala. (Watch some wily Hollywood producer snap him up in no time.) He weaves a soundscape comprising little original music but an atonal symphony of police sirens, gunfire and bomb blasts. His urban vistas show skies streaked with industrial smoke that may be the residue of another incendiary confrontation. Mexico might be a more colorful Bosnia, where a girl can realize her naive dream only through abduction by a vicious warlord. No wonder the lovely Sigmun plays Laura as a victim in permanent traumatic shock.

(MORE: See Corliss on the three Mexican cinema maestros)

Renouncing the shaky-cam esthetic and wild protagonists of his 2008 feature I’m Gonna Explode, Naranjo goes for elaborate long takes and bravura tracking shots that integrate innocent Laura and her infernal environment. In the night club, she stands in the foreground by a sink while, in the back, a men’s legs appear from a hole in the ceiling, followed by the man (a DEA officer), followed by rifles. Her drive back into Mexico explodes into gunfire: she cringes on the front seat as bullets crater her windshield. Then one of Lino’s men drags her from the car, past a vicious gun battle between La Estrella and the DEA: one man’s head blows open, a car collapses from gunfire, other cars are driven toward the front line as shields; a truck appears as Laura and the other wounded are tossed in. It’s a whole war movie, brilliantly revealed and choreographed in a single, 82-second shot.

Within a few minutes Laura is in the pageant finale. Too bereft and stupefied to answer the host’s question (“Wealth or fame?”), she has been guaranteed victory. To the astonishment of the contest favorite, Laura’s name is called; she is handed the crown, a sash and a bouquet; and as a mariachi band appears in a hailstorm of confetti, the winner stands still and mute, a statue of mourning amid the showbiz revelry.

Gawking at these awful events so thrillingly illustrated, the viewer may not know whether to scream or cheer. Miss Bala is a tragedy rendered with the savviest, moviewise virtuosity. A young woman’s despair, and a nation’s, was never so damned entertaining.

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