stars Stephanie Sigman and Noe Hernandez; Gerardo Naranjo directs.
There are no good guys in Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo's Miss Bala, just bad guys in varying shades of black. Naranjo shows us a world so corrupt and lawless that even the victims seem complicit in their own abuse. Mexico's official entry into the Oscar's Foreign Language category, Miss Bala made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Based on a true story, the film stars model-turned-actress Stephanie Sigman as Laura, a beauty contestant hopeful who stumbles into the middle of a brutal and vicious drug operation in northern Mexico. Noe Hernandez appears as Lino, the cruel and callous cartel soldier who forces Laura to become a drug mule -- and who mistakes rape for a relationship.
Writer/director Naranjo sends Laura careening between the violent streets and the equally dismal Miss Baja beauty pageant, where poor, unpolished girls wear cheap dresses and hope desperately for a chance to get out of crushing poverty. On Lino's orders, Laura wins the Miss Baja title, even though she made only a brief appearance during the competition. (In case you're wondering, the film's title replaces Baja, the location, with bala, the Spanish word for bullet.)
Laura has nowhere to turn; Lino will kill her family if she doesn't cooperate, he'll abuse her if she does. Her response to his ever-tightening hold is to shut down. Shell-shocked, she becomes almost mute, her face a reflection of her growing fear and helplessness. "Sometimes I felt frustrated about it," Sigman tells Art Attack. "Doing a contained emotional character, where you can't explode, is more difficult. But we wanted a character that had dignity somehow in the situation, not one that was melodramatic. That would be easy, to scream or to cry; it's harder to hold it inside."
Miss Bala does what few other films have even attempted, that is, to show the effects of the rampant corruption and violence in Mexico on an individual. Statistics about the thousands of murders and billions of dollars associated with the drug business become unreal. The numbers are too large to fully comprehend. But Laura's experience makes the drug wars south of the border personal.
"I think we try to understand what's going on, but nobody really does. It's so corrupt," Sigman says. "Sometimes you get lost. Who is the good guy? Who is the bad guy? You don't really know because the corruption is everywhere."
Monika Wagenberg, curator for this year's Latin Wave 7: New Films from Latin America film festival, which includes a screening of Miss Bala, says, "The film is a reflection of what's going on in Mexico right now. Everyone understands that what's going on in Mexico has gotten completely out of hand. The country has completely hit rock bottom. To make a film that is so accessible, like Miss Bala, is the most efficient way to draw attention to what's going on in Mexico."
She continues, "The film has a sharp, critical eye. Sometimes films that can be so entertaining and action-packed, like this one, don't really have that. You have this gorgeous model/actress in the role and there's definitely the possibility of favoring the sexy side of the story. But I don't think that's the case here. It's entertainment, but at some point watching the film you stop and say, wait, this is real."
Two examples of the country's indifference to the violence by drug cartels were very obvious during filming. First, the cast and crew had constant protection. (A major concern was kidnapping, a daily hazard for anyone even slightly wealthy or well-known.)
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Second, when Naranjo sometimes took to the streets to film action scenes, there was no reaction from the public even though there was no obvious camera crew or film set. Sigman tells us the cast would drive through public streets, armed with fake machine guns, shooting fake bullets at each other, looking like the real thing and yet go mostly unnoticed by the people passing by. "It was very scary during filming," she says. "They are so used to it, they didn't react. At least for me, that was the scariest thing ever. They didn't react at all."
Despite that, Sigman maintains that Miss Bala is in no way representative of Mexico as a whole. "I think it's a great film. It's amazing as a story, especially because that's what's happening right now in Mexico. Still, I don't think you can say this is the story of Mexico."
She pauses before going on. "But that happens with every movie, doesn't it? In a romantic comedy, everything is so wonderful, everyone is so beautiful. In reality, everything is not like that. Mexico has a lot of good things, good places and good people. This film is part of the reality, but just part."
Miss Bala will screen as part of Latin Wave 7: New Films from Latin America at 5 p.m. on Friday and 9 p.m. on Saturday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. For information, visit www.mfah.org or call 713-639-7515. $6 to $7. Miss Bala is available on DVD/Blu-ray.