Central and South American cinema has had a high profile here in Blighty, and indeed worldwide, over the past decade or so, with critical and commercial success for the likes of Amores Perros (Mexico), City Of God (Brazil), The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina), Tony Manero (Chile) et al. The September 2010 issue of Sight and Sound, featuring the headline ‘The rise and rise of Latin American Cinema’, highlighted this revolution, describing it as an ‘astonishing new wave of daring yet vividly real film-making’.
The latest film of this ‘new wave’ comes from Mexico. Miss Bala (a play on Baja, the state in which the film is set, and the Spanish for bullet) shines a light on the Mexican drug wars, as seen through the eyes of an innocent young woman called Laura, who becomes inexplicably and inextricably entangled in the web of violence and corruption of Tijuana. All Laura wants to do is win a beauty pageant and be crowned Miss Baja, which would offer an escape from the poor existence she ekes out with her father and young brother. These aspirations look like being thwarted when she witnesses a massacre at a seedy nightclub, but rather than killing her the gang boss, Lino Valdez, forces her to undertake a series of criminal activities. She becomes complicit in their crimes and it is made clear that attempting to escape would be futile. For his own Machiavellian ends Lino arranges it for her to win the beauty contest, but this pyrrhic victory is compounded by the loss of everything she holds dear.
Laura is shown to be a victim of circumstance and in some ways could be seen as a cipher for Mexico’s downtrodden, caught up in the drug wars and afforded no protection by the corrupt police. While in many ways I’m sure it is a ‘realistic’ portrayal of how an ingénue would behave in these extreme circumstances (the camera lingers on her keeping her head down and hiding under beds, behind walls and in cars as we hear bullets impact all around her), it becomes difficult to watch such a passive female protagonist at its core. She is threatened, physically and sexually assaulted and loses everything.
The performances are strong, particularly from Stephanie Sigman as Laura, and Matyas Erdely’s fluid cinematography is impressive, but there is something missing from this film that is hard to put your finger on. Perhaps it is because there are a few things that don’t quite ring true from a narrative and character point of view, even while the feel of the piece remains authentic. Well made as it is, it will surely go down as one of the minor works in the ‘Latin American new wave’ canon. More Une Femme est une Femme than A Bout de Soufflé, if you will.
Review by Damien Beedham
Miss Bala will be released on February 20th by Metrodome Releasing. There aren't any special features listed, but this may change on release.