Coming soon: Miss Bala | Bleader

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Coming soon: Miss Bala

Posted By on 01.26.12 at 01:01 PM

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First, the good news: one of the best movies to play at last October’s Chicago International Film Festival, Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala, begins its local theatrical run tomorrow. The bad news is that it will play at only one theater, Evanston’s Century 12 and CineArts 6, and likely not for very long, since there’s been next to no advertising for the release. I have no idea why Twentieth Century Fox would show such little support for Bala—which, in addition to being Mexico’s official submission for the 2012 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, boasts a wicked sense of humor and some of the most astonishing action sequences of recent movies. I’d strongly encourage Chicago cinephiles to make the trek north while it’s still on a big screen.

Moviegoers might remember Naranjo as the writer-director of I’m Gonna Explode (2008), a teens-on-the-run movie that borrows liberally from Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965) and other classics of the French New Wave. It's a lively work—drunk on youth and the possibilities of filmmaking—though it trumpets its influences perhaps a bit too loudly. Bala represents a substantial development, as Naranjo’s movie-love no longer seems an end in itself but a means of exploring the world at large. The film depicts the ongoing drug war around the US-Mexican border in vivid, thoroughly researched detail, with Naranjo’s high style dramatizing the urgency of the situation. Many scenes are built around ambitious tracking shots and busy, even chaotic onscreen action, evoking another disaster film by a great Mexican director, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006). Other scenes convey a palpable sense of confinement, taking place in sharply observed interior spaces and suggesting advancing menace through offscreen sound (whether he’s moving or standing still, Naranjo uses the widescreen frame for all it’s worth, which is the main reason why Bala should be seen in a theater).

The title character is a poor young woman from Baja California hoping to win some money by entering a regional beauty contest. But just before the rehearsals begin, she crosses the path of a local cartel, who force her into becoming a de facto member of the gang. In a bizarre comic turn, the cartel allows her to stay on in the beauty contest, even “sponsoring” her candidacy by bribing the judges. Naranjo builds on a dark, quintessentially Mexican irony here: no matter what she does, Laura remains the face of Baja culture (bala means bullet in Spanish).

The movie never oversells its central joke, however. As Naranjo explained to me in October, he wanted Bala to be an immersive experience, with larger themes emerging only in hindsight. The athletic work of cinematographer Mátyás Erdély contributes greatly towards this end (Naranjo told me he chose Erdély for no other reason than that he was Hungarian; he assumed that any countryman of Miklós Janscó and Béla Tarr could realize tricky camera movements instinctively), though it wouldn’t be so impressive if the screen weren’t always packed with observant detail. Naranjo and his cowriter Maruicio Katz spent time with actual cartel members while working on the script, and it shows in the film’s characterizations and sense of place. While none of the movie’s criminals are likable, they’re not monsters, either: one gets a sense of their dehumanizing daily grind.

Naranjo described some of the cartel members he met as “pathetic,” since they exhibited the childlike delusion that they were living in a movie. Yet Miss Bala, in its breathtaking violence, often feels like the movie they think they’re living in. I don’t find this hypocritical on Naranjo’s part: there must be a pervasive allure to Mexican drug cartels if young men continue to join them, and understanding the cartels would require that one acknowledges this allure. Unsurprisingly, Bala sparked plenty of controversy on its home turf, inspiring even national-level politicians to speak out against it (Naranjo claimed the most common critique was that its depiction of contemporary Mexico was too pessimistic). That seems like a positive development, as increased public debate can be useful in encouraging social change. I wish the film were the subject of similar debate on this side of the border.

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