' ' Cinema Romantico: Miss Bala

Monday, April 02, 2012

Miss Bala

Director Gerardo Naranjo takes the real life story of Laura Zúñiga, a former Miss Hispanic America who in 2008, shortly after earning her crown, was arrested along with several other members of a Mexican drug cartel, and fleshes it out fictionally, crafting a lean, mean joy(less) ride that follows a prospective Baja beauty queen on a taut line straight to hell. Narjanjo is less concerned with traditional empathy than with placing us squarely at ground level, to walk in the same crown and sash as our leading lady and ask, “What would you do if a crime lord said, ‘Carry this cash across the border illegally or else…?’”

As it opens, Laura Gurrerero (Stephanie Sigaman) and her friend Suzu (Lakshmi Picazo) manage to get themselves entered into the Miss Baja beauty pageant. Suzu meets a few “friends” at a local club who have “connections” that might enable one of them to win. But these same “friends” are gunned down by a Mexican crime boss, Lino (Nue Hernandez) and weapon-wielding associates. Laura manages to escape. Suzu is nowhere to be found. Laura learns without Suzu she is out of the pageant. She goes off to find Suzu and finds herself as a mostly unwilling accomplice of Lino, endangering her family but especially herself, the stakes necessary for survival getting higher with each passing moment.

Like Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” highlighted the way in which various factions of the Tijuana drug wars blend together and good and evil mostly just gives way to evil, “Miss Bala” does the same thing with less speechifying – although, problematically, also with less attention paid to characters, all of whom come across like ghosts in a docudrama – and just as many kicky and unsettling twists and turns. At least a couple times Laura, despite getting her place back in the pageant on account of her new “friends”, simply walks away, seemingly intent to wash her hands of the whole affair. But you don’t just walk away. There is nowhere to walk away to. Around every corner lurks another black SUV with bad men ready to leap out, corral you and use you for their own end game. The police act helpful right up until that moment you realize their intent was never to help you at all. The screenplay never even takes time to properly explain just for who or for what Lino and his masked men are fighting. There are requisite references to “pigs” (read: cops) and such, but it explicitly refrains from specifying motives.

Although the beauty pageant angle is taken from real life, the film cleverly exploits it to its full advantage, contrasting this glorified talent show against the flying bullets and dead bodies in trunks of cars. A contestant is posed one of those typically inane pageant questions, some nonsense about how you would make your country a better place, and she delivers a hilariously vague and uninformed answer. It’s a moment of serious gallows humor and brutally underscores just how non-existent any hope for a real or meaningful victory is.

“Which would you prefer, wealth or fame?” This is what the Miss Baja Regis Philbin asks Laura. But she has no answer to the question and instead retreats from the stage in tears. Wealth and fame are meaningless when all are you’re trying to do is live to the end of the day.

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