Miss Bala, 2011. Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico.
Miss Bala, Mexican filmmaker Gerardo Naranjo’s follow-up to I’m Gonna Explode, 2008’s smart homage to the nouvelle vague, is a film that certainly packs the proverbial bang. And a literal one too. This time around Naranjo channels a Hollywood influence in an alarming yet massively entertaining work. Miss Bala centres around the character of Laura Guerrero, an aspiring beauty queen from the poor side of the tracks. Through circumstance she becomes involved with a local crime gang, and is placed in the precarious position of aiding the group in order to protect her family.
While the above synopsis might sound like the typical “in-too-deep” scenario, the success of Miss Bala comes from its execution. One gets a sense that things might be different with Naranjo’s film early on, with a masterfully directed siege sequence shot in a nightclub. As our protagonist readies herself in a public bathroom we see a barrage of foot soldiers sleek their way in to the night club, in a sequence which combines Horror movie aesthetics with traditional action cinema tropes. The word palpable is a horrible one to fall back on, but the atmosphere here truly is palpable! The intensity of the scene is almost crippling, the sense of dread and unknowing almost overwhelming, and this really sets the tone for the movie from that point forward. For such a predictable tale to be told in such an unstable manner really is very impressive.
Our upcoming look at Steve McQueen’s Shame takes a diversion with a tangent on the long take, and while both films employ the technique in very different ways, both are equally impressive. While McQueen’s film relies upon the honesty and frailty afforded by the long shot, Naranjo’s movie pushes the confines of the action movie frame to its limits by utilising breathless and overt editing. Recalling the work of fellow Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron, and the groundbreaking developments in camerawork made on his Children Of Men, Naranjo practically redefines the Hollywood shoot-out, with one of the finest and most memorable gun battles this side of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice . Yet its not merely the action sequences that benefit from the directors masterly use of the long take. An early sequence set within the confines of a police car is wholly defined by its pacing. Were it not for the very specific tone set by the lack of cuts the slow realisation faced by our protagonist simply wouldn’t work on an audience indoctrinated by the very specific rules of Hollywood story telling. As with Children Of Men, Miss Bala is punctuated by pops of (contextually) extreme violence, sputtered out like bullets from a machine gun. Again, an uncertain edge prevails.
Performance wise it probably won’t surprise many to find that the film rests upon the shoulders of its titular character. Stephanie Sigman is a relative newcomer to the big screen, but is a strong presence and does a fine job at carrying the movie. The nature of the direction dictates that the protagonist blends in to the story wholly, as the film is clearly about a figure engulfed by a situation, and while this is hardly Bressonian levels of actors as models, Sigman and Naranjo do a good job of not overwhelming matters by not focussing too heavily on the actor as star, with Sigman acting as a recalling beacon for the viewers attention in the wake of the films overt action sequences. We do get a very clear feeling throughout that Laura Guerrero is quite simply an ordinary person caught up in a really bad situation.
Miss Bala goes wide at the end of this month, and bears all of the hallmarks of the sort of art house film that crosses over to the mainstream. Lacking the macho bravado and misogyny of the Luc Besson factory, and structured around a wonderfully subversive arch, Miss Bala is a truly remarkable piece of world cinema.