A cross between Miss Congeniality and City of God, Miss Bala is a Mexican film about a young woman trying to become a beauty contest queen whilst being used by a dangerous Mexican drug gang called La Estrella. However the connection to the 2002 Brazillian classic is that they are both set in South America and revolve around the drug trade and the brutal gang wars that surround that business. Miss Bala has its own style, effectively the film is a series of long takes, perhaps the complete opposite of City of God’s quick cutting. Gerardo Naranjo’s camera lingers on our central character, Laura Guerrero, as she goes deeper into the dangerous day to day missions of a trigger happy gang of Mexican drug smugglers who operate disturbingly similarly to the police with their walkie talkies and standard procedures. They are even armed with similar weaponry and body armour to the police, who come across in the film like soldiers fighting a war.
The long takes will begin to test your patience after a while but they do provide some taut sequences as Laura gets caught in the middle of gun battles with rival gang bosses and even members of the army. One of the best elements of director Gerardo Naranjo’s takes is in the sound; the noise of a car revving up, gang foot soldiers handing out orders, rapping at a door, it all makes you jolt, particularly when the shootings begin and Laura is forced to duck and cover while bullets decimate the objects around her; these are the moments when the extended shots are used best.
The lack of characterisation means we don’t follow Laura as deeply as we could do, while the leering and unpredictable gang lord Lino is also a bit underwritten as his intentions for Laura are never quite clear. Laura’s futile quest to discover what happened to her friend who she can’t find after a terrifying nightclub massacre is also a bit unconvincing.
As Laura progresses through the beauty pageant and in drug trafficking as a ‘mule’ we see the stark contrasts of one world of lavish, glitz and glamour as Laura is bathed in bright white lights at her catwalk ceremonies while the other is one of living in and out of Humvees, being held hostage by the heavily armed gang; even in her own home.
On the whole the film is a suspenseful thriller – Laura is given random instructions, constantly wondering what is next in store for her. The long takes help us empathise with Laura’s mental and physical state, as over the course of a few days she is dragged deeper into the gang’s issues. We feel her exhaustion as she balances a lifestyle of being under intense fire from police convoys one moment, to getting glammed up and shoved onto a catwalk the next. In one of the film’s best moments, Laura is unable to smile and breaks down during her crucial question and answer stage of the contest as only an hour before she was surrounded by flying bullets, burning cars and dying gang members.
Probably not the strongest candidate for the Best Foreign Language Oscar entry, but it is worthy of nomination for its audacious plot, taut sequences and a general air of dread, leaving you unsure of what cruel and disturbing form of violence might occur next.