LFF 2011: MISS BALA review

After beginning the LFF coverage with a couple of sniffy reviews (although to be fair, in 360’s case, there was a lot to sniff), it’s probably time to skew things a bit more positive around here, and give you a review of a film I can get genuinely enthusiastic about: the coruscating MISS BALA, the new film from I’M GOING TO EXPLODE director Gerardo Naranjo.

A teenaged girl in the Mexican province of Baja California dreams of escaping her quiet life living with her father and younger brother by being crowned at Miss Bala in the local beauty pageant. However, a night out with her friend at a nightclub frequented by DEA agents and mobsters turns into a gangland massacre, one she is fortunate to escape from with her life. Her luck quickly runs out however, as her status as a witness sucks her deep into the world of Mexican drug crime, and things only get worse when the local crime boss takes a personal shine to her.

MISS BALA wasn’t what I was expecting when I went into – I assumed that the film would be a socio-political actioner that crackles with real verve and energy, like a CITY OF GOD, LA HAINE, or even GOODFELLAS. MISS BALA is most definitely a socio-political action film, and it is spectacularly directed – more on that in a second – but the tone is exceedingly grim and sombre throughout, so that it more closely resemble the nihilistic, washed-out realism of recent crime dramas like GOMORRAH and ANIMAL KINGDOM. Certainly it shares with those films and also the brilliant A PROPHET the basic narrative structure of a morally neutral protagonist submerged in a violent world that they are suddenly forced to adapt to, and it pulls this off well, if not quite with the style of A PROPHET and the intensity of ANIMAL KINGDOM. Be warned though: this can be tough going, as there is little in the way of respite from our fragile-looking heroine finding herself in ever more desperate and unpleasant situations.

Without wanting to sound crass, current day Mexico is certainly a febrile place for setting stories like this – indeed, there are some events in the latter half in the film that might seem over the top were it not for very similar, widely reported crimes actually taking place in Mexico just a few weeks ago. The film really does a good job of capturing a sense of lawlessness and hopelessness that the grip of the cartels has forced onto the country.

In pure film-making terms it is eye-catchingly well directed, with some brilliantly conceived set-pieces, that are oftentimes shot in audacious single takes, reminiscent of some of the sequences in CHILDREN OF MEN, that give the violent action an almost dream-like quality. Naranjo is brilliant about taking moments we’ve seen in dozens of other crime films and shooting them from a point of view that we’ve never seen before.

MISS BALA also boasts a fantastic screen villain in Lino Valdez (Noe Hernandez), the drug boss who takes her under his wing. Although he possesses an Igor-like limp, he lacks any other kind of evil flourishes that we have come to expect from characters like this – he isn’t a hysterical maniac, and he isn’t a dead-eyed psychopath either – instead, he goes about his terrible deeds with an almost bored type of pragmatism that is even more chilling. Actually, I lied about the evil flourishes. He has a really gross moustache as well.

Valid criticisms of the film are that it’s too cold and minimalist – the characters, including Miss Bala herself, are fairly shallow, and the gist of the film doesn’t amount up to more than ‘Mexican drug gangs are bad’, hardly a point that needed re-iterating. But it’s hard to resist a film when it’s executed with this much style and power. Gripping, muscular, and expertly made, MISS BALA is the crime film to beat at LFF.

MISS BALA is showing as part of the LFF on Wed 19th, Thu 20th, and Sat 22nd. It goes on general release in the UK on the 28th October.

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