Miss Bala (2011, directed by Gerardo Naranjo) was Mexico's submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars last year. It didn't make the short list, but there's no shame in that. It certainly deserved to be in the conversation. It's a harrowing movie. From my perspective, it's a movie that functions as a kind of distaff answer to Cormac McCarthy's border novels. McCarthy, famously, is uncomfortable writing about women. This movie places its heroine square in the center of a story that bears more than a passing resemblance to No Country for Old Men, minus the old men. There's a withering gaze at the role of women in Mexican society too, and that has an echo in McCarthy as well, given that he once placed an idealized woman in the center of a Mexican patriarchy in All the Pretty Horses and used her as the crucible in which to test his hero. It certainly wasn't about her. Women are phantasms for McCarthy:
"The last time that he saw her before she returned to Mexico she was coming down out of the mountains riding very stately and erect out of a rainsquall building to the north and the dark clouds towering above her. She rode with her hat pulled down in the front and fastened under her chin with a drawtie and as she rode her black hair twisted and blew about her shoulders and the lightning fell silently through the black clouds behind her and she rode all seeming unaware down through the low hills while the first spits of rain blew on the wind and onto the upper pasturelands and past the pale and reedy lakes riding erect and stately until the rain caught her up and shrouded her figure away in that wild summer landscape: real horse, real rider, real land and sky and yet a dream withal. "
The heroine in Miss Bala suggests that this is so much bullshit. As well she should.
The story in Miss Bala follows Laura Guerrero, whose family makes a subsistence living selling clothes. Laura dreams of being a beauty queen and she and her friend, Suzi, audition for the Miss Baja pageant. After the pageant, Suzi invites Laura out to a party. At the party, a platoon of armed men enter the place and massacre the partiers. All, except for Laura, who is hiding in the bathroom. The gunmen find her, but inexplicably let her off without killing her. The leader of the gunmen is Lino Valdez, who is a crime boss of the first order. His cartel is at war with the state, and he needs a patsy. Laura is it. In exchange for not killing her, Lino engages Laura in an ever escalating series of "favors," in which she becomes more and more complicit in Lino's crimes. In exchange, Lino "fixes" the pageant for her. In the mean time, she's part of a plot to take out the DEA's man on the scene and is sent across the border into San Diego to bring ammunition to Lino's men. The endgame finds Laura having to use her status as Miss Baja in order to get close to General Duarte, the government's anti-drug warrior, in order to arrange his assassination. Unfortunately for her, the whole thing is a set-up and she takes the fall along with some token gang members.
This is a brutal, gritty movie, in which corruption is like air. It's everywhere and you can't help but breathe it. Laura, in addition to being an innocent that is useful to the movie's plot, is also the audience's entry into this world. The movie keeps a very disciplined focus on Laura's point of view. Stephanie Silman is the absolute center of this movie and she holds the screen admirably. Because the movie holds its viewpoint so ruthlessly, there are certain plot points that are opaque. I certainly found myself wondering exactly what was happening and why at points on the narrative. And that's fine. I understand why that is. The ending of the movie, the bitter end, that is, strikes me as a gesture to let the audience off the hook. It doesn't follow it's through line to its logical conclusion, but I can understand that, too. To punish Laura further at the end of the film might be well nigh unforgivable.
The other major figure in the movie is Lino (Noe Hernandez), and he's a complete cipher. The movie doesn't get inside his head. It only observes him. What is his attachment to Laura? Dunno. Is it sexual? Maybe. There's certainly a rape narrative involved. Is she merely a tool to him? The end of the movie certainly suggests this. Why does he rig the beauty pageant for her? For love? For affection? Does he see her as a pet? Maybe. The trouble with assigning motivations to Lino is that in all things, he's a shark. He has cold, dead eyes. He swims. He kills. In relation to Laura, he might as well be a tornado or Godzilla stomping on her house. He's an act of god, and he's just as implacable. Once Laura tells him her name and where she lives (under pain of death, it should be noted), it's clear that he has no intention of ever letting her go until he gets from her what he wants.
The beauty pageant itself is a brilliant conceit. I mean, I know that this movie is based on a real event in which Miss Sinaloa was found to be in cahoots with a drug cartel, but the filmmakers make something of it. Laura's victory at the pageant is tainted and when she wins, she's horror struck, because the pageant has proven to be just another racket. Beauty itself doesn't matter one whit. These scenes deconstruct that image of femininity, and lay it out as something to be used by men to further their aims.
The main question the movie raises during its entire running time is whether Laura has any agency in the events of the film, and I'm damned if I can say that she does. There are two spots where she could make a choice, I think, but the movie is clever in the way it hems her in. Early in the movie, the morning after the nightclub massacre, Laura ends up in a squad car, but that squad car takes her to Lino. So, in the movie's universe it is established that she can't go to the authorities. This explains some of her actions. The fact that Lino knows where to find her family might explain the rest. But, as I say there are two spots in the film where she could turn the course of the narrative. In the first, Lino shows up at her house after a raid, and while she is bandaging him, he sets his gun aside. Laura could, at this point, take the gun and shoot Lino. She doesn't. In the second: after she's flown across the border to San Diego, she has an SUV in which she is alone. She's in the US, so presumably, she would be in a jurisdiction where Lino's influence isn't so all-pervasive. She could go to the authorities at this point. She doesn't. During the rest of the film, Laura's actions are dictated by overarching patriarchal imperatives. Is this a commentary? The movie is frustratingly blank-faced about this, but this is where the beauty contest comes back into the picture. It's a key, and it unlocks the film's well-hidden feminism. At least, I think it does. Miss Bala is a confounding movie, sometimes.