NYFF 2011: MISS BALA Review

You've got to hand it to Gerardo Naranjo. Other filmmakers, particularly those of the Hollywood school, would have taken the easy way out when starting from such a winning, inspired-by-a-true-story premise:  a poor, would-be beauty queen becomes, against her will, a moll/driver/stooge/mule for a ruthless narco-gang. After all, it's easy to see how one might coast on that, isn't it? The audience would get a certain amount of conventional family drama (I've got to explain things to papi!), one standard, semi-exciting set piece per act to add some action cred, maybe some farcical elements as the criminal community intersects the vacuous world of beauty pageants, and probably that single, do-gooding, crusader-cop who wants to rescue our protagonist, with hints of future romance thrown in for good measure.

Well, Miss Bala has none of that.
 
Yes, some of the themes are fairly predictable:  backstage phoniness, the dream of escaping one's class, the ambient corruption of the Mexican authorities. But these ideas are so embedded in a dizzying narrative that's conveyed by ultra-immersive technique that they register more like all the stray bullets that seem to be coming at you from every direction--they have impact, sure, but you're not exactly tracking them. You might have already heard that Naranjo decided to shoot Miss Bala in the kind of jaw-droppingly long, complex, yet fluid takes that tend to make cinephiles drool. But what distinguishes the virtuosity that he and DP Mátyás Erdély display is the way that they make this approach work in non-flashy ways, in the film's quieter scenes, often to build an air of desperation. Indeed, their emphasis even in the loudest shootout is actually on the psychological, not the visceral. Specifically, it's on the experiential perspective of lead Stephanie Sigman, who does a wonderful job of aging what seems like ten to fifteen years in the course of a couple of harrowing days. (Some might claim she underacts given the ordeal she's put through, but I think she perfectly conveys the stunned perplexity of an intelligent person forced to serve three masters at once--crooks, the forces of law and order, and her own conscience, which is never really aligned with the first two.)
 
So Miss Bala isn't intentionally showing off with its breathtaking mix of camerawork and choreography, or simply trying to "involve" the audience in the manner of 3D, real-time, and "found-footage" films.  Rather, in a classic case of form-following-function, the goal is to underscore the thematic content... which is all about confusion on deeply moral and existential levels. That we have a blast via all the steadicam maneuvers and the flawless use of off-screen space and sound is really just a nice bonus.  As Naranjo made clear in his NYFF press conference, he made the film for "purely personal reasons" as an "an exorcism of [his] fears," not to "save" his country. On the level of genre this means that Miss Bala "looks like a thriller but in thrillers you know what the bad guys want." Instead, Naranjo wanted to "twist that [practice] and commit to the ignorance of the lead girl"--which of course translates into our ignorance as well. And because the script, co-authored by Mauricio Katz, is so effective in giving us just enough information to show us how much we don't know, the result is a perpetually heightened state of anxiety, one that Naranjo summed up with an image drawn from everyday life in today's Mexico. "You never know what's coming in that black truck with the tinted windows," he said--is it a big shot politician who might look upon you as a threat, is it drug dealers who are threat to you, or is it the cops... who also might represent danger?  

While Miss Bala brilliantly leverages this brand of uncertainty, I don't want to overstate things too much and make the case that it's, if you'll pardon the phrase, a masterpiece--I think I've seen only one of those at NYFF this year and it's called A Separation.  Time and again Miss Bala just doesn't give the thoughtful genre audience enough credit. I don't mind that it wears its irony on its sleeve as in dialogue such as "My dream is to represent the beautiful women of my state," I just don't like it when that sleeve starts dripping under its own heavy weight, as when Baja is termed a place "full of light" in the culminating beauty pageant scene. Sexual desire is also telegraphed in awkward, unnecessary ways, e.g., "She's a hottie, General." Miss Bala can be similarly unsubtle when Naranjo creates a tad too many visual punchlines in a film that's ostensibly aiming for a stylized naturalism--by this I mean, for example, a slow pan to a hanging body that the characters can already see but which is kept from us as a kind of pay-off. And the most strangely offensive touch is the closing onscreen text, which spouts statistics about drug war deaths; it lends a patent "message movie" feel to a film that's been a lot more nuanced than that, and is odd coming from a writer-director who openly states that he's not on a mission to save his country.

Am I being a bit harsh here? Perhaps. It's just disappointing to see so many middlebrow concessions in a film with the power and conviction to be so decidedly non-brow, if you will--that is, to appeal to audiences the world over, a thinking person's popcorn flick par excellence. In other words, let's just hope that, as an outcome of his success here, Naranjo doesn't get recruited into making the next Matt Damon action thriller. He is clearly capable of so much more.

Screens October 1 at 9:00 pm and October 2 at 4:00 pm

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