“Miss Bala” (2011): down a drug-war rabbit hole
5 February 2013
There’s a moment in Gerardo Naranja’s Miss Bala that I can’t shake from my mind. Our protagonist, Laura (Stephanie Sigman) has landed in the Miss Baja California contest, to which she arrives just in the nick of time to walk onstage to do her interview with the pageant’s fawning host in front of a TV audience. He sits her down and opens with one of those gooey, feel-good questions to her — but gets only silence. She stares ahead, unable to answer, allowing for second after second of TV silence to tick by. And then she starts to weep.
If that seems like the worst of all possible beauty pageant moments, Laura’s disastrous TV moment is the very least of her troubles. She starts out as an ordinary Tijuana young woman, auditioning for the Miss Baja contest with an innocent, “My dream is to represent the beautiful women of my state,” and heading out to a club with her more adventurous friend Suzu by promising her father, as usual, that she’ll be careful.
If only there were a way to follow that advice. The first lesson we learn in this border town, riddled with drug war violence, is that you can fall down the rabbit hole even if you’re careful. And unlike Alice in Wonderland, there’s no normal world to return to afterward. No longer Miss Baja, she’s become Miss Bala (Miss Bullet).
Other films about drug violence seek to translate that world to us, but this one leaves it all in chaos. Seen through Laura’s eyes, nothing makes sense. Corrupt American agents, Tijuana police in the pockets of the drug lords, attacks by Mexican DEA agents — it all jumbles together in an unintelligible mess that teaches only one lesson: there’s no way out.
Speaking of things that don’t make sense, it all begins when she comes under the watchful/terrifying eye of drug lord Lino (Noé Hernández, above), who calls her Canelita (little cinnamon) and assigns her to small tasks like driving a car or crossing the border. He’ll feel her up, but sex isn’t his primary interest. Yet once anchored to Lino, it seems she will never get back to her old life.
And so our own Miss Bala ricochets through this crazy world, from making occasional appearances in the surreal environment of the Miss Baja contest to navigating that other Tijuana that’s on fire. Talk about crazy. No wonder she moves through the city with her head bowed — so exactly the opposite posture of a beauty queen. The chaos is so all-encompassing that she, like so many Mexicans near the border, succumbs to it — holding still, for example, while Lino tapes thousands of dollars to her stomach.
Miss Bala is a riveting, maddening film; one spends so much time inside the head — practically inside the skin — of Laura that on stepping back you wonder whether Naranja has figured Laura as a proxy for all Mexicans on the border. That combination of submission to her fate, whiplash at the arrows of fortune, and an occasional mild attempt to exercise her own agency … the schizophrenic state of mind resulting from that existence says something dark and perverse about the state of the border.
Always surprising, weirdly claustrophobic, and darkly funny — no one can imagine Laura before the camera, asked to say something anodyne to a TV audience seeking escapism, without seeing the humor there — this film is brilliant and biting all at once.
Best of all, Naranja’s tale is a fictional what-if story inspired by the real-life case of the 2008 Miss Sinaloa, Laura Zúñiga, who was arrested alongside a host of gang members with a truck full of weapons. You can’t make this shit up, I tell ya; but there’s nothing about Miss Bala that seems fantastical. This is a great, dark film that will leave your skin itching. And you’ll never think about beauty pageants quite the same way again.