NYFF ’11 Review: Naranjo Really Does Explode With the Gripping “Miss Bala”

Mexico's official entry to the Oscars doesn't show the country in the best light, but its director may be one of its brightest stars with this deliberate thriller about...

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All of our 2011 New York Film Festival coverage is here.

Gerardo Naranjo asked the audience to observe 60 seconds of silence out of respect for the fact that “this is something very important to us” – referring to himself, producer Pablo Cruz and Stephanie Sigman – before presenting the American premiere of “Miss Bala.” It wouldn’t be the only time Naranjo would test their patience, nor would it be the only time it was ultimately rewarding.

Following in the footsteps of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” Naranjo’s tragic, slow-burning panorama of the drug wars in Mexico would seem to be the second film of the year to blast down the barrier between arthouse and grindhouse to startling effect. “Miss Bala” centers on the unlikeliest of heroines in Laura Guerrero, a 23-year-old from Tijuana who tends to her younger brother and father while carrying dreams of winning a local beauty pageant so she could one day be in the kinds of glamour shots of Madonna and Audrey Hepburn that line her own walls. With a statuesque frame, she would seem to fit the profile, although poise isn’t her strong suit, and in fact when she ends up in a club one night looking for a friend, it’s her uncertainty that makes her easy prey for the leader of a local gang called La Estrella to help them case the joint and leave behind a few bodies after they’re done. But they aren’t finished with Laura, and how could they be.

MissBalaNaranjo The cruel joke of “Miss Bala” is Laura’s quest to become a pageant queen in a place where she’s surrounded by ugliness, her good looks ultimately subverted for the purposes of a decoy by the local drug lord and her toned stomach the perfect place to transfer duct-taped cash across the border without security noticing a little extra weight. As she becomes a witness to a descent she couldn’t possibly fathom for herself, Laura becomes disconnected from her actions, wherein lies the true beauty of Naranjo’s film.

While Sigman’s extraordinary expressiveness as Laura anchors the film, the character always seems to be at a distance even when she’s directly involved in the action. To some degree, she’s passive, but since Naranjo stages many scenes largely unbroken by edits, they breed the same anxiety that Laura’s feeling and lets the hopelessness of her situation sink in as she’s asked to do things that drain her of her humanity. It’s no coincidence that as the film unfolds, the camera is more and more likely to behead her in a frame, leaving her much-coveted body to the corrupt men who essentially hold her hostage, but her mind far off elsewhere.

Naranjo puts on a master class in aesthetic storytelling where the substance equals the style, careful not to allow the film’s large-scale action sequences to threaten to glorify the real-life exploits that inspired the story. An amalgam of real-life events in Mexico such as the murder of DEA agent Kiki Camarena and the time a beauty queen really was co-opted by a gang, “Miss Bala” is laced with humor and idiosyncrasies that ring true. But it’s more impressive when this same honesty is felt during a scene straight out of a first-person shooter game when Laura is escorted to safety during a firefight between the local authorities and La Estrella and only the flying bullets can penetrate the invisible wall Naranjo has erected between the action in the background and Laura’s sadness over being there that looms large in the fore.

“Miss Bala” plays almost like a preemptive response to the style termed by Press Play’s Matthias Stork called “chaos cinema” that’s been in vogue in recent years where action is defined by frantic editing and roving cinematography rather than anything actually going on onscreen. Naturally, this subject has been hotly debated by critics, some of whom have decried “chaos cinema” as overstimulation to the point of meaninglessness, but as demonstrably refuted in elegant fashion by Naranjo, a film can depict chaos without manufacturing it cinematically, making it all the more moving when allowed the time to appreciate the impact it has on all parties involved. "Miss Bala" is a devastating film on many levels, but also an energizing one for film fans looking for an exciting new voice. Naranjo is the kind definitely worth waiting for.

“Miss Bala,” Mexico’s official entry to this year’s Academy Awards, will open in the U.S. in January.

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