Film Review: Miss Bala

Mexico’s official Oscar entry for best foreign-language film presents startling iconography with its star, Stephanie Sigman, emblematic of the country’s current problems of drug cartels and weapons trafficking, and the violence which is des

They’re always saying Catherine Deneuve, with her imperial beauty, stands for France. Now they’ll be saying Stephanie Sigman, with her vulnerability and wattage-full smile, stands for Mexico in Miss Bala. “They” may be right. But that smile is seen less and less as the film goes on.

Sigman, a former model and first-time actor, plays Laura Guerrero, a young woman in a northern Mexican border town who dreams of becoming the next Miss Baja California. The very likeable Laura (loosely based on a real woman) goes with her friend Suzu (Lakshmi Picazo) to enter the pageant competition. When you see the poverty she shares with her father and brother in the beginning of the movie, you understand. One of the most touching things about Laura—and there are many—is that she is not as eager for fame as her friend.

After a quick run-through at the pageant (her not-so-great dress carried in a plastic bag, her chipped fingernails betraying her hard life), the pals hit a nightclub. Masked thugs show up with machine guns and begin perforating the crowd, hoping to hit some undercover agents. Laura manages to be momentarily missing in that action, but loyally in search of Suzu, she goes to a cop who turns her over to the drug gang. Such is life in Mexico, according to director Gerardo Narango (I’m Gonna Explode). The gang leader Lino (a sly performance by Noe Hernandez), who she has unfortunately seen sufficiently to recognize, takes Laura captive and sends her off on gang errands.

Yet Lino develops tender feelings for her, even—pulling some strings—arranging for her to win the crown. (Ultimately, though, she becomes the "Miss Bala"—bullets—of the film’s title). Oddly, one of the most disturbing scenes in the film is when the two are simply sitting on her bed in a medium close-up, and she starts to weep. Something is going on outside the frame, and your imagination goes wild. There is also an indelible image which will remind you of a Goya etching, as Laura stares at the camera in a horrifying halo of light, while—in a pick-up truck on a beach—Lino sexually takes her from behind. Knowing while not assenting, this is the plight of Laura and all she represents. (Over 30,000 Mexicans have been killed in the past five years in the drug cartel struggles.)

Despite its unrelenting violence, particularly in the second half, which may leave the viewer as confused and dazed as Laura (a clear choice by the director, who shoots from her point of view), there are some humorous moments. The seriocomic metaphor of the beauty pageant, for one. (Think Smile or Miss Congeniality.) Suzu tells Laura that if you win, you “have to have sex with one of those old rich guys.” In one of a series of rapid-fire mini-climaxes, when the sexually predatory General (Miguel Couturier) is about to be offed in yet another of the side-switching betrayals of the story, we see from a foregrounded “mister” that he has breathing difficulties. It makes him no less disgusting, of course.

Ultimately, echoing the right/wrong place/time of the movie’s beginning, Laura manages to hide (first it’s toilets, then it’s under the bed), and survive after a devastating finale to her beauty queen “career.” But to what end? It’s the same question the director is asking about his country.