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Film Review: Miss Bala

Miss Bala (Producer: Pablo Cruz; Executive Producers: Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal, Geminiano Pineda), the story of a beauty queen turned narcotrafficker pawn, was released to U.S. audiences earlier this year after receiving international critical acclaim in 2011.  Director Gerardo Naranjo adroitly depicts the horrors of Drug-War violence and the even more disturbing state of corruption within the Mexican government in this poignant and heady genre-bending action thriller that is a definite must-see.

The story of Miss Bala is based on a real-life scandal involving beauty queen Laura Zúñiga.  In 2008, Laura Zúñiga took the state title of Miss Sinaloa, her home state, and went on to place third in the Nuestra Belleza México national beauty pageant.  Zúñiga represented Mexico in the Reina Hispanoamericana 2008 pageant and won–bringing home the first title for Mexico in the international competition.  But, she was stripped of her crowns later that same year when she was arrested along with her Juárez Cartel-affiliated boyfriend and several other men en route to Columbia from Mexico.  The intercepted caravan was carrying over $50,000(US) in cash, several automatic rifles and handguns and over a dozen cell phones.  The debacle cost Zúñiga her crowns in the Nuestra Belleza México and Reina Hispanoamericana competitions.  Yet, as alluded to in the movie, these same criminal connections that led to her demise in the pageant circuit may have actually brought her the crowns–or more accurately, bought her crowns: in a country overrun by corruption at every level, taking pageant titles through bribery, or under direct threat of violence, is far from unbelievable.

In Miss Bala, actress Stephanie Sigman plays Laura Guerrero, the film’s naive protagonist who sets off from her humble family to seek fame and fortune in a beauty competition.  After witnessing a gun-filled melee at a night club, Guerrero finds herself in a criminal world which she is powerless to escape.  Early attempts to break away prove futile as the all-powerful narcos easily coerce her into complete submission.  In between street battles with the Mexican army and coordinating business affairs of the cartel, her drug lord captor Lino Valdez (played by Noe Hernandez) arranges for Guerrero to win the beauty pageant.

Naranjo uses the metaphor of a fixed beauty competition against the backdrop of horrific violence to describe present-day Mexico–and Mexicans.  Anxiety and helplessness prevail amid lawlessness and corruption. Cartel connected criminals operate with impunity at the highest circles of government and society. Innocent citizens are ultimately defenseless.  In a Wall Street Journal article from May 2011, Naranjo is quoted as characterizing Mexico as a place where Mexicans have lost a sense of cooperation and fraternity–something he hopes to convey in Miss Bala.  Certainly, less-than-flattering portrayals of Mexico can bring criticism from Mexicans disagreeing with Naranjo’s bleak interpretation of the country. But, in portraying Mexico as he does, Naranjo opens up a much-needed discussion on media representation of Mexicans and Mexico.  From scenes depicting ineffectual officers of the law to shots of the Mexican female body as little more than a vehicle for transporting money, the imagery of Miss Bala provides a rich ground for examining these representations. According to Naranjo:

“I think every country builds an image based on mirrors. You see yourself in a mirror and you know who we are. And I think that’s why we Mexicans are crazy, because our mirrors are so distorted. If the soap opera is the basis of our education, and it is for a lot of people, we have a very distorted image of who we are.”

While several facts from the Zúñiga case were fictionalized for the movie, the rampant devastation and indiscriminate violence of the Drug-War is in line with what journalists and residents in hard-hit areas report. Disappearances, displacement, torture, rape, murder, political corruption and injustice seemingly without end are plagues eating away at Mexico.  It is the aim of artists and filmakers like Naranjo to strip away the glorification and melodrama of narcotrafficking folklore and instead portray Drug-War crime and its consequences more truthfully.  A heroic aim, indeed. And one achieved by Miss Bala.

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