As one of Variety's "10 Directors to Watch", there's no denying that Gerardo Naranjo's chops are significantly maturing with each venture. Naranjo's crime thriller Miss Bala maximizes explosive action by way of impressive long shots, for example; but, as Adam Nayman has cogently summarized in Cinema Scope's (now legendary) pre-festival coverage for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF): "Miss Bala undoubtedly has a point to make: that the drug war, if you hadn't heard, is bad news. Throw in the fact that so much in Miss Bala feels like a demonstration of its maker's virtuosity, and you have a film that, while superficially totally of a piece—it's shapely, as they say, and filled with visual and dramatic rhymes—leaves a viewer feeling at odds. Naranjo's craft is to be admired, and, at least theoretically, so is his commitment to social critique. I worry, though, where those things—and the inevitable critical and possible commercial success of Miss Bala—might take him."
The film itself is something of a fractured fairy tale, which means of course that there's no happy ending or resolution to Naranjo's brutal portrait of corruption and culpability in the Mexican drug wars. Any woman catering to a fairy tale in this volatile environment is ... well ... a pendeja and deserves what she wishes for, which explains why Lars Von Trier has nothing on Gerardo Naranjo, who puts his lead actress Stephanie Sigman through one torturous trial after the other. It's to her character Laura's credit that she survives at all, which is nothing short of miraculous, if largely unbelievable and bordering on the ludicrous. In fact, her escape from one bad situation is a mere pretext to guide her into an even worse situation: from the frying pan into the fire and then onto the top broiling rack of a gas oven. I couldn't escape the feeling—as Nayman has hinted above—that Naranjo's exploration of the rampant violence in Mexico is less social commentary than thinly-guised and glamorized brutality. Is this really what audiences want to see in Mexican movies? Obviously so, since Miss Bala has now arrived in the Awards Buzz sidebar at the 23rd edition of the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) as Mexico's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards®. Clearly, box office is expressing its prurient "watch-her-burn" interests?
At MUBI, Dave Hudson has vigilantly rounded up the enthused reviews from Cannes where Miss Bala premiered in the Un Certain Regard section. MUBI's Cannes coverage includes festival dispatches from Marie-Pierre Duhamel and Daniel Kasman and a video "questionnaire" conducted by Kasman and Ryland Walker Knight. Hudson then monitored the film's dampening critical reception at TIFF and the New York Film Festival.
I caught the North American premiere of Miss Bala in TIFF's Contemporary World Cinema sidebar where it was introduced by its Canana producers Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna with director Naranjo and actress Sigman in attendance. Further—as it was the 10-year anniversary of 9/11—Miss Bala was preceded by a TIFF-produced short that recalled the role of the festival in ameliorating the shock at the time. Bernal recalled, "Ten years ago we were presenting a film here. The first time that we worked together. For those of you who don't remember, we had just won an award in Venice for Y Tu Mama Tambien. That was exactly 10 years ago. And as we know, stuff happened and the show had to be canceled on the 11th; but, we presented it on the 12th and it was a huge relief for everyone who was there in the cinema. We perhaps had one of the best and the most emotive projections of that movie. So we're incredibly happy to be here once again in Toronto presenting on September 11 as well a film that's relevant to our situation right now."