A word about the title of this film for those who don’t speak Spanish. The main character wants to enter the Miss Baja California beauty contest, but is instead drawn into Mexico’s drug war, dodging bullets to stay alive. The word “bala” means “bullet”, so the title is a play on words, contrasting her goal with her reality.
How do you survive if you live in a war zone? You keep your head down and hope nobody blows it off. Parts of modern day Mexico are war zones. Since the Calderon government sent in the army to combat drug traffickers, over forty seven thousand people have died in the ensuing violence.
The film’s first shot tells us a lot about the central character. We are in a young woman’s bedroom, and her mirror is plastered with photos of models and celebrities. Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) is a young woman living in Tijuana with her father and brother. The family pays the bills by selling clothes, but Laura has dreams of a different life. Moments after her father drives away to sell his wares, Laura runs off to enter the Miss Baja beauty contest. This is her chance to make it big.
Everything goes horribly wrong. Laura goes looking for a friend in a dance hall and ends up in the middle of a bloody gun fight. In trying to find her friend she’s captured by drug dealers. From that point on her only goal is survival. She swings back and forth between desperate panic and catatonic numbness.
Looking at all this through Laura’s eyes, the director captures the state of mind of contemporary Mexico. The script, by Naranjo and Mauricio Katz, takes us on a dizzying tour of the drug war that’s consuming the country, putting us in the middle of chaotic shootouts and confusing subterfuges. All the men carry guns, and it’s often hard to tell if they’re drug dealers or government agents. Though really, does it matter who they’re working for?
Naranjo and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély shoot scenes in long, fluid takes with a minimum of cutting. We stay with Laura throughout, following her from one chaotic situation to another, experiencing it all with her. The film has a dizzying, kinetic energy, pulling us from busy streets to underground garages, from noisy auditoriums to deserted beaches. But Miss Bala is not an action film. The director does not play it for suspense. There is no traditional story, no structure we can hang on to for reassurance. We share Laura’s fear because, like her, we never know what’s around the next corner.
Laura does win the beauty contest. Her wish does come true. But as she stands on the stage wearing her tiara, music blaring, confetti swirling around her, Laura feels only fear and confusion. And hours later she’s again the center of attention, this time having been arrested in the course of a massive police action. She is dragged in front of cameras as part of a press conference staged by government officials to boast of their anti-drug efforts. In both cases she is nothing more than a prop used by the media to tell lies. The story of the ordinary girl turned beauty queen and the story of the beauty queen turned drug dealer are both equally dishonest, both equally meaningless.