Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Jose Teodoro -- Miss Bala: Nightmare State

Miss Bala: Nightmare State
Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo upends his filmmaking to show a country torn apart
by José Teodoro
Film Comment

Most existences on earth are marginal; the majority of people live on the edges of some kind of war. That the woman and man at the center of Miss Bala swing into each other’s orbit is itself no great coincidence. She’s Laura (Stephanie Sigman), the cheerful 23-year-old daughter of a Tijuana clothing merchant, and he’s Lino (Noe Hernandez), a taciturn, hard-eyed, soft-voiced drug trafficker about whose past we glean almost nothing. Both hail from humble if not desperate backgrounds; both aspire to transcend social determinism via archetypal routes to glamour and power: just as Lino asserts himself through terror and illegal commerce, Laura, however haphazardly, hopes to embody someone’s notion of the ideal woman by entering the Miss Baja California competition. Her first, fleeting encounter with him occurs when a dance party is turned into a massacre by Lino and his confederates. They meet again when she is so naïve as to seek out the police for help. In some perverse variation on the romantic comedy, the two keep crossing paths. Laura spends much of Miss Bala in a state of shock, while Lino seems to quickly intuit how best to exploit her allure while ostentatiously exchanging favors. He can ensure she wins the Miss Baja crown; she can serve as a gorgeous decoy in his criminal dealings.

A fascinating about-face for Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo, Miss Bala—co-written by Naranjo and Mauricio Katz and loosely based on actual events—surveys the current state of play in the drug war and offers commentary through a procession of absurdities, ironies, and largely uncontextualized mayhem. The gangsters and the DEA agents are equally menacing and seem to favor the same black SUVs; a beauty contest audience bursts into wild applause for a catatonic contestant; a flaming tire rolls by during an urban shoot-out as though it has emerged from a cartoon, traversing a stretch of asphalt covered in blood, bullet casings, and gasoline. Despite an incongruous, statistics-heavy closing title card, Miss Bala can no more be reduced to a hand-wringing docudrama about the escalation of Mexico’s drug-related violence than Take Shelter can be called a treatise on overcoming mental illness. These films are personal statements about individuals ceding control to forces beyond their comprehension—personal statements that just happen to dovetail nicely with urgent social issues.

“I’d arrived at a place where I felt like I wasn’t challenging myself that much,” says Naranjo, “so I decided to do something that I really didn’t know how to do. My previous films had a little bit of social commentary, but it was from a bourgeois point of view, trying to denounce commodification or conservatism. When I started to develop Miss Bala I felt I was responding to something far more urgent that’s in the air. To the fear.” Speaking during the Toronto International Film Festival last September, by which point Miss Bala had already seen its share of plaudits and detractors, Naranjo emphasized his latest film’s conspicuous shift in both style and content from his preceding work, whether the privileged teens playing out lovers-on-the-run melodrama under a mesh of Godardian alienation techniques (the deliriously stylish and witty 2008 I’m Gonna Explode) or privileged young adults negotiating disastrous relationships (the clever but flat 2006 Drama/Mex). “The directors I admire tend to change a lot between films,” says Naranjo. “Maybe not often with regards to form, but with subject matter for sure. Before, I felt that I was a filmmaker but had yet to really show it. I trusted so deeply in the present, in improvisation. I know I’m shifting. The question now, for me, has to do with whether or not I can maintain this.”


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