‘Miss Bala’: Beauty queen dreams a bust

So many girls dreams of being a beauty queen and so many girls lose, but sometimes even winners end up losers. Gerardo Naranjo’s “Miss Bala” is based on a real incident that mixed up a beauty queen winner with drugs and gangs and is Mexico’s official entry into the Academy Awards foreign film category.

Naranjo and Mauricio Katz have scripted a twisted, fractured fairy tale that rushes to a series of unsavory situations as our lovely lass gets further entangled into deadly dealings. Our Cinderella-in-waiting is a slender, doe-eyed woman, Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), who with her friend, Suzu (Lakshimi Picazo), stand in line to enter a beauty contest to be Miss Baja California.

Their clothes betray them. They don’t come from money. Laura’s chipped nails indicate how far she is from the disciplined majoring in makeup mindset of the real competition. Laura’s best friend has an inkling of what they need and they go to a club where the friend feels they might make some necessary connections. She’s right, but things don’t go exactly how she planned. Laura ends up the witness to a gang shooting and, in her subsequent search for Suzu, goes to the wrong policeman.

The policeman turns her over to the the gang leader, Lino (Noe Hernandez) who elects not to kill her, but to use her, first as part of his drug operations and then as a means for sexual satisfaction. Throughout, Laura is a passive victim. Her friend Suzu is more ambitious; Laura merely agrees and follows. Suzu knows they will have to sleep with someone to win. Laura’s loyalty to her friend is touching. Her noblest gesture is to leave her father and brother to protect them.

Played by first time-actress and model, Sigman’s Laura goes from a modest girl with a slow, shy smile to a near zombie–going through the motions of living, but merely surviving. She doesn’t even react to being raped.

The movie’s title, “Miss Bala,” is a play on words. Bala means bullets. The movie is based on a 2008 incident where Laura Elena Zúñiga Huizar who was one of 32 contestants for the Nuestra Belleza México 2008 and while she didn’t win, she was the representative for the Miss International 2009 pageant. She would, a month later, win the Reina Hispanoamericana pageant in Bolivia. It was the first time Mexico had won. Two months later, in December, she was arrested with seven men who carried a large amount of American money and a lot of firearms. She would later say she was kidnapped by her boyfriend who as a high-ranking member of the Juárez Cartel. She promptly lost her two titles although she was later released due to lack of evidence.

Looking at videos of Zúñiga, you can see that Naranjo obviously made a choice to portray his Laura more sympathetically–as a victim instead of an ambitious woman who gets mixed up with the wrong kind of powerful men–knowing or just suspecting how they made their money. Yet, perhaps Naranjo went too far in the other direction, making his Laura too helpless, too friendless and too passive. In her heart, we know she wants to do the right thing–with her missing friend Suzu, with her family and even with the older man military man (Miguel Couturier) who feels the contest winner is his personal possession.

For Mexican viewers, I wonder how this all plays. The real Laura is making a quiet comeback and when you look at the videos, she looks like a strong competitor who is far from being a naive Cinderella waiting for her prince to save her.

Still Naranja’s movie serves as a powerful allegory of how the poor must feel–trapped between corrupt police and the threat of an anonymous death in a world controlled by powerful drug cartels, perhaps the best one can hope for is to survive the fights between rival gangs.

“Miss Bala” screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, the London Film Festival and the New York Film Festival as well as the Cannes Film Festival where it debuted. In Spanish with English subtitles. The movie opens at the Pasadena Playhouse 7 on 20 January 2012 for a limited run.

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