Scream Queen, by Jack Fleischer
Before it began, I must confess to hearing some of the talk surrounding Miss Bala, a.k.a. Mexico’s Oscar submission for best foreign film. Most of the chatter was about how this film is a brutal exposé on the truth of Mexico’s current drug cartel problems. This film is indeed brutal, and the image it paints of cartel control of certain parts of Mexico is terrifying. The question is whether this is a good story, with rich characters, or merely a well-made slasher film that’s been, “ripped from the headlines.”
For the record, “bala” means bullet in Spanish, and our protagonist is also preparing to compete in the Miss Baja beauty pageant, and at the crossroads of these words we find both the title, and the plot. What starts off as a party the night before a regional attractive lady contest, degenerates into a horrific twenty-four hours of kidnapping, subterfuge, gun fighting and smuggling.
Our protagonist “Laura Guerreo” is played by Stephanie Sigman, in what seems to be her first film role. She does a capable job of bringing the audience into the action as a surrogate. You can feel her terror and fear throughout, but her character suffers from a problem so often found in these types of roles, everything happens to her. She’s in a state of constant confusion and fear, and nothing about her situation is proactive. The movie happens to her, just as it happens for the audience. I will say that Noe Hernandez, the film’s villain, is both convincingly scary and oddly (or perhaps uncomfortably) sympathetic.
This is not to say that she does a bad job, or that her character was poorly constructed, but this technique does shift focus away from the people and towards situations. Thankfully, writer/Director Gerardo Naranjo, a former film critic, does a decent job creating compelling action.
Naranjo use a number of very long takes, and in some ways these long, over the shoulder takes make the film feel like it’s unfolding in real time. This feeling of real time aids in putting tension in every moment, add a serious of outrageously unfortunate events, and you really are on the edge of your seat.
Another thing this movie seems to be doing is constantly trying to show us something in the dark. Of course every film screening has the possibility of being plagued with projection issues, but I do believe that it was a stylistic choice to have a number of scenes shot so dark that all you can see are faint, faint outlines in the dark. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the half-hidden full-scale war that seems to be burning like scrub brush through Mexico. By contrast, all the scenes with full lighting take on an air of fantastical reality. Especially when our protagonist is on stage at the Miss Baja pageant the film takes on the jacket of a surrealist dream. Is the truth in the dark, while the lies shine in the light?
Eh, it’s not really my job to tell you what any of this means — but the fact that I can sit here and speculate shows that there is a depth to this film. It’s up to each viewer to decide if the questions are worth asking.
Without revealing too much, the ending comes as a surprise. Some might see it as a relief from watching what amounts to hours of psychological torture. Others may find it merely disturbing. It also ends with an informative addendum about the current state of drug trafficking in Mexico. How accurate is the Mexico portrayed in this film? I have no idea, but the current spate of Mexican tourism commercials would have you believe that this is all an exaggeration.
This film is fascinating, and it’s not a bad movie, but the following line from the movie’s promotional material rings false, “[This is] the story of a young woman clinging on to her dream to become a beauty contest queen in a Mexico dominated by organized crime.” While the movie happens to this young woman, this is ultimately a message film and somewhat at the expense of characterization, it portrays something truly terrifying.