What a beauty – Miss Bala review

Miss Bala – Starring Stephanie Sigman, Lakshmi Picazo, and Juan Carlos Galvan. Directed by Gerardo Naranjo. Rated MA. By Richard Haridy.

Gerardo Naranjo‘s riveting Mexican thriller Miss Bala is a tremendous cinematic achievement; both a stunning technical exercise in sustained tension and a rich allegory highlighting the hopeless scenario facing an entire society caught in the crossfire of a futile drug war. Dreaming of a life filled with fashion and modelling far from her current impoverished state in Tijuana, Laura (Stephanie Sigman) enters a local beauty pageant with her best friend, Suzu (Lakshmi Picazo). The evening before the show, Laura and Suzu are caught up in a nightclub shooting between a drug cartel and the police. Kidnapped by the cartel, Laura is swept up in an ever escalating chain of events that are seemingly out of her control.

Some viewers may find Laura’s powerlessness difficult to take. She is presented as a resolutely passive protagonist, rarely making any active choices but rather being continually bounced around by the corrupt forces that dictate her reality. Naranjo’s point is clear: the people of Mexico inhabit a waking nightmare where they submissively live on the whims of criminals and corrupt officials.

Miss Bala is visually stunning as it constructs its narrative through a series of long, meticulously composed tracking shots that perpetually follow Laura in and out of these horrific scenarios. Fans of long takes will be in Steadicam nirvana as Naranjo’s camera prowls the streets of Tijuana leaving the viewer in an unbearably tense position unaware of what menace is around the next corner. One sequence that follows Laura as she unwittingly drives into the middle of a major police shoot-out is easily one of the most jaw-droppingly intense pieces of cinema seen this year.

Miss Bala is a major work from a significant up and coming talent. Admirably eschewing any easy resolutions, this film uses its central character to create a cipher for the Mexican people as a whole. Sigman’s performance is less about creating empathy for her character and more about representing the pained helplessness of an entire community. This is a magnificently electrifying tale showing how an entire nation of people are being systematically abused through an absurdly corrupt power structure.

4/5

Miss Bala is now showing exclusively at the Cinema Nova in Melbourne. It plays the Perth International Arts Festival from February 19, 2013.

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