With all the must-see movies around the holidays and Oscar season, it's easy to have missed some of the buzziest foreign language films of 2011. No regrets because a DVD release is inevitable. The Mexican entry, "Miss Bala," which didn't make the final five nominees, is one click away -- and loses little in the translation from big screen to small.
Gerardo Naranjo's "Miss Bala" (produced by actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna) follows a ripped-from-the headlines plot. Take the brutal 1985 murder of DEA agent Kiki Camarena, the implication of a local beauty queen, corrupt politicians and police, and you have the components of "Law & Order: Tijuana, Mexico." (I'd love to see that show!)
"Miss Bala" follows some very bad days in the life of 23-year-old wannabe beauty queen Laura (sultry Stephanie Sigman), who lives with her father and younger brother, selling clothes for cash. When she enters the Miss Bala pageant with her best friend, she imagines her life transformed. What follows are the absolute worst couple of days a leggy bronze beauty with an incandescent smile can encounter.
[Related: Indie Roundup: 'Miss Bala']
Laura's smile soon disappears after a night at a disco puts her in the path of a drug gang. Part witness, part pawn, the homegrown beauty gets shoved in and out of cars, in and out of crimes, in and out of fancy hotel rooms -- and walks onstage at the beauty pageant transfixed by fear, incapable of the shellacked smiles of her competitors, or of uttering the canned patter of the typical contender. If ever there was a case of be careful what you wish for….
What stands out is the matter-of-fact nature of the storytelling. This is no steamy telenovela or hyped up American crime thriller, with emotions driven by a manipulative score. It's gritty, and the action drags along unevenly like a body tied to the rear bumper of a moving truck. There are no long pauses to reveal local color -- a Day of the Dead parade, perhaps, a stall selling colorful pinatas -- just the back alleys and ticky-tacky discos of Tijuana, the sister city to San Diego, California.
In "Miss Bala," the villains don't twirl their mustaches, although the pint-size gang leader Lino (Noe Hernandez) looks like he could have walked off the set of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." His goals are cash and drug commerce (it's a $25 billion industry). There is nothing romantic about his treatment of Laura, which makes it more disturbing. The drug ring's guns blaze, and innocents fall in the splatter. They are not prerevolutionary "banditos"; they are greedy men bettering themselves financially in a society that offers few other options.
And at the center is Laura, beauty queen wannabe. She is dressed up and dressed down by captors who don't bother to cuff her -- they know where she lives. Only her quiet mulishness saves her. In the end, we know little more about Laura than we did at the beginning. She was always a survivor -- at the beginning she was a survivor with dreams, at the end a survivor with scars who knows the game is rigged against her. One could get grand and say that this natural lovely is Mexico -- resilient, suffering silently, betrayed by men -- a victim of the larger dream-crushing drug wars that tether the United States with her neighbor to the south.