An emphatic swan dive into the lawless machinery of Mexican politics that plays out under a hail of bullets and moral chaos.
Gerardo Naranjo’s 2008 tale of young lovers on the run, I’m Gonna Explode, introduced audiences to an energising new voice in Latin cinema. Now, the Mexican writer/director is using his enhanced international reputation as a soapbox to sound off against his country’s rotting core.
Inevitably echoing the earlier films of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón, Miss Bala is an emphatic swan dive into the lawless machinery of Mexican politics that plays out under a hail of bullets and moral chaos. The story centres on the Dantean demise of Laura Guerrero (first-timer Stephanie Sigman), a smoldering, cash-strapped young woman who dreams of winning the Miss Baja California pageant.
After getting caught up in a massacre at a local nightclub with her friend Jessica (Irene Azuela), Laura is snatched by a radical gang who exploit her good looks by rigging the pageant vote and using their newly crowned hostage to snare their number one mark.
Quite why Naranjo punishes his gutsy heroine so mercilessly from start to finish isn’t clear, but a few cursory allusions towards her Western aspirations – posters of Audrey Hepburn and Madonna adorn her bedroom walls – are apparently enough to validate putting her through the mill. The irony is that Naranjo’s high-octane disposition will surely flash up on Hollywood’s radar.
Sigman carries herself gracefully in what is a demanding and at times demoralising role, but every drop of sweat and tear she sheds is washed away by the heavy-handed symbolism Naranjo employs to depict the socio-political typhoon that’s devastating his homeland. Laura is Mexico, fucked from every angle (quite literally in one scene) by the bitter and bloody feud that continues to rage between the state and organised crime.
A few genuinely breathtaking set pieces – shot in single takes and choreographed to perfection – do just enough to distinguish Miss Bala from other, less dolled up, South American dramas (Los Bastardos and Elite Squad spring to mind), but it’s impact is blunter than expected. Naranjo is a filmmaker worth watching, though.
Woe is Mexico.
Clumsy symbolism undermines a tenacious performance from Sigman.