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Every once in a while, you see a film that you are truly conflicted about. You know that it’s incredibly well done, but something almost impossible to describe keeps you from actually feeling it. For me, Miss Bala is that movie. Mexico has its Oscar hopes riding on it, but I don’t know if that’s saying something about the film itself or about the state of Mexican cinema as a whole. Join me below, as I try to explain exactly what was right, and where I think it went wrong.
Director: Gerardo Naranjo
Miss Bala tells the story of Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), a young woman who wants nothing more than to be the new Miss Baja California. When, at the advice of her friend, Laura goes to a party in order to curry favor with powerful people who could help her chances. At the party, Mexico’s most dangerous gang appears and kills most of the guests. Laura escapes, only to be captured again. In charge of the gang is Lino Valdez (Noe Hernandez), a man with a keen criminal mind and a fantastic mustache. Lino uses Laura to perform certain jobs to benefit his gang, in turn helping her out with some of her own problems.
Those who require fast-pacing in films need not apply. Miss Bala is one of the slowest films I have ever seen. I am relatively tolerant of long stretches of not much happening, but if you have a problem with that, you will absolutely hate everything about this movie. Likewise, if you have a problem with long takes… this film isn’t for you. There are a number of scenes without any cuts at all, and there’s not a whole lot of movement on the camera’s end either. In fact, the majority of the camera’s apparent movement in the film is due to the large number of scenes shot in moving cars, so the background moves even though the camera doesn’t. Again, this did not bother me particularly (I actually found it kind of cool), but it is something you need to know before you decide to see this movie.
There are intense scenes of action in the film, as would be expected given that a gang plays a major role in the plot, but they are few and they don’t last very long. An action movie Miss Bala is not. Those that do exist are pretty awesome though, and very realistic in feel. I think that the slow leadup enhances the scenes, though, and my only real problem with them is the fact that Laura seems to be bulletproof. Bullets never hit her, and that makes sense because BAM, end of film… but nearly everyone around her gets shot and she makes it out completely unscathed on three separate occasions.
More than anything, this is a film that lives or dies by its performances, or so you would think. I would venture to guess that Stephanie Sigman’s face makes up for at least half of the film’s runtime, and any failure on her part would be the death of the movie. This is where things get iffy for me, because while she did an excellent job, I never felt any connection to her. This doesn’t seem to be her fault, but the script’s. Before she gets swept up into the gang, she doesn’t really do a lot. It almost seems like the film is banking on her pretty, slightly awkward appearance to create a connection without any real work behind it. Unfortunately, it didn’t pay off. Every time something bad happened, I felt completely apathetic. I had absolutely nothing invested in the character of Laura Guerrero, despite the strong performance. The rest of the acting was also well done. Lino, Laura’s family, and the various other characters did their jobs, but none of them elicited sympathy, empathy, or any feelings at all.
As I mentioned before, the film is technically quite good. The sound work is excellent through and through, especially during the action scenes. Everything sounds very dangerous and very real, and I commend the audio team on that. There is a lot of silence in the film, which is hugely underrated as far I’m concerned, and it fit well with the moods. The music was also enjoyable. I may not be humming it for the next few weeks, but I was happy with it while I was in the theater.
The cinematography is really what sets the film apart. I would not call any of the shots particularly beautiful, but it was always interesting to see what was deemed significant by the director to put in the frame. Entire conversations would take place with one character out of focus, for example, or with one character mostly off screen. My favorite scene in the film, from a visual standpoint, took place at night in what was essentially pitch black. For several minutes, the only thing visible on screen were the faint silhouettes of Lino and Laura. The scene was also nearly silent, and it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I thought it was a fantastic shot, though not one that would work in very many films. It’s definitely the moments like that that make Miss Bala stand out from the pack.
I want to like Miss Bala so much more than I do. The cinematography is really cool, the sound design is excellent, the acting is great, and everything about it is well done. But it just didn’t resonate with me. The connection that I needed to care about the woman who spends half the movie crying just wasn’t there, and that is a goddamn shame. I should love this film. There should be an editor’s choice badge stamped all over this review. But I don’t, and there isn’t. It’s a great movie that presents itself as something merely decent. I absolutely recommend seeing it… eventually, but there’s no reason to rush to the theaters.