Imagine a dystopian city where nobody can be trusted. Where war perpetually rages, as law and order teeters on collapse. This isn’t a nightmare future vision from the pages of Orwell or Huxley, or even one of Kafka’s angst-ridden fables, but Miss Bala, director Gerardo Naranjo’s mesmerising version of a present-day Mexican city.
Against a backdrop of corruption and gang warfare, Laura (Stephanie Stigman) enters a beauty pageant, only to find herself embroiled in the running battle between criminals and police. While attempting to locate her missing best friend, Laura falls into the clutches of seedy, sweaty gangster Lino Valdez (Noe Hernandez), and becomes an unwitting accomplice as violence in the city continues to escalate.
From a technical standpoint, Miss Bala is an astonishing achievement, and clearly the product of an experienced and intelligent filmmaker. From beginning to end, Naranjo adopts an unusual shooting conceit that places actress Stephanie Sigman at the centre of almost every shot, and she’s great in what must have been an exhausting role. We see everything from her perspective, and how she reacts to it – it’s a technique that recalls Alfonso Cuarón’s masterful work in Children Of Men, and the camerawork alone gives the film enormous impact.
The script, by contrast, is so minimal to almost be nonexistent. This isn’t necessarily a problem in a film this well framed and edited, but it does mean that Miss Bala’s characters aren’t as well developed as they could have been. We know little more about Laura at the end of the film than we do at the beginning, and she’s Miss Bala’s most fleshed-out figure. All the other characters in the film are resolutely two-dimensional. Even hardened criminal Lino, with whom Laura forms a tense and unlikely relationship, is entirely characterised by his moustache.
The plot, meanwhile, leaves Laura with almost nothing to do; she’s like a rag doll, tossed around by the film’s events. Naranjo is obviously trying to make some valid points here about how innocent, ordinary people suffer when caught in a war between criminals and corrupt law enforcers. This is great as an over-arching message, but a little disatisfying from a dramatic standpoint.
None of this is to say that Miss Bala is a bad film. Skimpy though the plot and characters are, it remains a staggering piece of movie making. There’s a remarkable shoot-out sequence that exemplifies this; at one point, Laura drives straight into the middle of a war zone, and before she knows it, she’s cowering in the foot well of a car as bullets shatter the windscreen. The camera hunkers down with her, recording every twitch of fear and tinkle of splintered glass. From a technical and visual standpoint, it’s quite brilliant, and relates a sense of chaos and panic that a more conventional handling couldn’t have captured.
Miss Bala, therefore, is a one-of-a-kind action thriller with an arthouse tone. Its soundtrack is minimal, and Naranjo uses long takes and periods of silence to create moments of meditation and unease – if Andrei Tarkovsky had made a movie set in contemporary Mexico, it may well have looked something like Miss Bala.
The lack of a truly human centre is disappointing, since with a handful of character moments, Stephanie Stigman’s character could have been given more depth and richness, which would have created even more tension and intrigue as a result. But even with this flaw in mind – which, admittedly, not everyone will find as problematic as I do – the brilliance of Miss Bala as a piece of filmmaking shouldn’t be overlooked, nor should its bleak and personal take on a city torn apart by corruption.