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Film: Mexico's 'Miss Bala' is a vision of hopelessness

September 15, 2011 |  4:40 pm

Miss Bala Stephanie Sigman Canana

Tonight, Mexicans around the world will celebrate 201 years of their country's independence from Spain with "The Shout," the mythologized call for an uprising against foreign rule made by Father Miguel Hidalgo on Sept. 16, 1810.

Unlike last year's big Independence Day bicentennial, which saw a gargantuan carnival take hold in the center of Mexico City, this year's run-up to the biggest Mexican holiday on the calendar has been rather lackluster.

Traditional decorations on government buildings appeared gradually or not at all. It was the same for street-corner vendors selling red-white-and-green flags. Troublingly, several news reports from various regions of the country said some cities and towns -- as many did last year -- will not celebrate "El Grito" tonight for fear of violence or due to extortion threats (link in Spanish). 

The country's ever-violent drug war has left at least 40,000 dead and produced a persistent sense of dread among people here over what the next year might bring. The Mexican and U.S. governments have vowed to maintain their combat strategy against ruthless transnational drug cartels despite the spiraling violence and horrific massacres, such as last month's Casino Royale tragedy.

In other words, enthusiasm is low this Independence Day.

In this context, watching a film like the new Canana release "Miss Bala" becomes an exercise in helplessness, and ultimately, hopelessness. "Miss Bala," which arrived at theaters in Mexico last week, follows the story of an aspiring beauty queen in Tijuana who gets caught up with a drug lord after a violent shootout at a night club.

Stephanie Sigman plays Laura Guerrero, a somewhat naive but ambitious beauty pageant contestant. In director Gerardo Naranjo's vision, she becomes an unwitting pawn in a tangled web of vengeance between Tijuana's secretive power complex of drug traffickers, military brass and U.S. drug agents. (Watch the trailer here.)

The film was inspired in part by the story of the 2008 arrest of Laura Zuniga, a Miss Sinaloa beauty queen tied to suspected members of the Juarez cartel. Naranjo and writer Mauricio Katz found that Miss Sinaloa's version of the events that led to her arrest was riddled with contradictions, according to a feature story in Gatopardo magazine (link in Spanish). So they built a fictional story about a beauty queen thrown into a drug war in which contradictions are the norm and often solved with blunt violence.

Sigman's character appears in almost every scene of the tightly shot film, yet she has relatively few lines. A physically stunning figure, the actress moves through "Miss Bala" like a deflated rag doll, at the whim of men who control her movements and who beat, objectify and assault her.

At least, I found myself acknowledging halfway through the movie, this character is spared the torture and brutal death that has befallen so many women in Ciudad Juarez. It's a grim thought.

Like many recent Mexican films that have looked at the drug war (such as last year's bruising filmgoing experience known as "Hell"), Naranjo's "Miss Bala" offers few options for redemption or justice. There is no revelatory antidrug war monologue from a broken U.S. official in Washington as there was in Stephen Soderbergh's "Traffic," for instance.

What is perhaps most striking about it, though, is how plainly it depicts the corruption of Mexican military and federal forces as well as the active (and sometimes dubious) involvement in the conflict on the part of U.S. agents.

At one point in the film, in fact, Laura's drug-lord captor dons a Mexican federal prosecutor's vest and heads for another Tijuana gun battle as if the roles were easily interchangeable. The film's main U.S. agent, meanwhile, is depicted as having a possible link to a rival drug group.

"It's like a video game," I remember remarking out loud in a darkened theater on Monday night.

All the while, everyday life in Tijuana -- my family's hometown -- is punctuated by the constant presence of heavily armed soldiers, masked federal agents, frightening checkpoints and wild shootouts that, in the movie at least, make San Diego's sister city look and sound like Gaza or Tripoli.

Yet the drug war grinds on. The scandals, bloodbaths and other outrages will probably keep rolling. So will the protests and the parties. It's a useful reminder for tonight's grito. How many possible Miss Balas, I wonder, are out there and being victimized at this very moment?

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Actress Stephanie Sigman as Laura Guerrero in 'Miss Bala.' Credit: Canana Films

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