Mexico as a nation might seem to be falling apart, evident in the famously horrible incidents in Ciudad Juarez (detailed brilliantly by Roberto Bolano in 2666), with conservative estimates claiming four hundred women were killed in little over a decade, where others suspect it was closer to five thousand. Here was a metonym for a country crime spreed and drug riddled. But the cinema is rather more alive and well than many of its citizens. During the same period that the terrible crimes have been taking place in Juarez, Mexican cinema has given us Amores Perros, Y tu Mama Tambien, Japon, Battle in Heaven, Sin Nombre, Alamar, Duck Season and plenty others. While Carlos Reygadas (Japon; Battle in Heaven) is the high auteur of this national wave, a wave often viewed within the broader context of a Latin American cinema incorporating very interesting work from Argentina, Chile, Brazil and even the cinematically generally uneventful Paraguy, others are trying to find an idiom within the pace of mainstream film whilst calling into question many of the tropes utilised.
Following the more speculative, suggestive and interior drama I’m Gonna Explode, about a young couple who restlessly look to create events in their lives in the violent tradition of the couple on the run (Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands), Miss Bala is very much a look at violence from outside the character. It’s as if Naranjo in these films wanted to tackle two forms of the inexplicable: the violence that youthful restlessness creates to justify its own nervous energy, which concerns the complexity of character, and the violence the society creates to justify power. If the earlier film was aptly called I’m Gonna Explode, the new one indicates that society already has. As we follow the central character almost no action passes for a decision, with Laura (Stephanie Sigman) caught in a series of actions that are reflected in the film’s careful use of off-screen space. Here is a woman who happens to go to meet her friend at a club, and gets spotted in the toilet by the gangsters about to massacre the various characters, including some US narcs. Yet unlike her friend she gets out alive, and starts enquiring about the friend’s whereabouts, relying on a less than kindly cop to help her with enquiries. The police officer immediately shops her to the criminals, and from there-on her life is not her own but utilised for the purposes of an ongoing war between the criminals and the narcs, with the sides not always easy to discern. A film more concerned with imploding violence might rely on on-screen tension and the close-up, an aesthetics of intimacy leading to the destructive chemistry of the characters. There is in so many films of intimate violence, from Badlands to Heavenly Creatures, a sense that this is where chemistry meets the violent, l’amour fou that incorporates not only the lovers themselves but often random strangers too.
Explosive energy though works much more from the social system over the nervous system, and Naranjo shows us structural violence, violence situated beyond character and in the social dynamic that denies strong agency even amongst the characters apparently possessed of it. The gangster who dictates all of Laura’s movements is curiously purposeful but without strong agency, if we assume agency to be the degree of psychological and emotional significance that goes into the deed. Partly this is due to the focus on Laura whilst the actions are those of the gangster, but by the end of the film he seems to have been puppeteered by his own government: not only has his agency not been his own through the film’s use of off-screen space that puts most of his actions on the periphery, but also in terms of the power structure that leaves him no more than a henchman for powers higher up.
But let us say a few words more about off-screen space here. In an early scene before the massacre in the club, the gangster, Lino Valdez (Noe Hernandez), asks Laura whether she has seen his face and she denies having seen it before, so he remains a midriff presence, as we don’t initially get to see his face either. Later in the film, when the narc whom Laura has fingered meets his demise, he meets it as the camera pulls up from his kneeling body on the beach, to the vehicle that will reverse over him. We have no idea where Laura happens to be at this moment, but as the film is viewed almost exclusively from her perspective, and she would seem still to be at the beach also, we can assume she has witnessed the incident from nearby. At another moment, the film plays with the idea of a partiality of event. We see Linoi pulling on a rope in the air, and then see that it is the narc hanging from a bridge. Initially we may wonder what he is pulling on, before the film reveals the narc’s body. As in numerous other ways, the film plays up the partiality of perspective as limitation of action. It seeks a place between the action film where behavioural options are usually given, and the imploding film of personal energy unleashed. If the action film often utilises the necessities of logistical on-screen space as hero and villain negotiate spatial awareness with dexterity, and the internally violent film often looks towards behavioural anomalies to locate the violence to come, a film like Miss Bala offers numerous close-ups of Laura as she reacts passively to the violence around her. Yet these are not the close-ups belonging to psychological revelation, the sort of close-up belonging to a character we see in close-up so the film can reveal what is on her mind and how she might act. The close-ups instead give us the limited perspective that makes us wonder what is going on beyond Laura’s control, not what is going on inside her head. The famous scriptwriting dictum of giving your hero or heroine a clear goal is surely inapplicable here. Laura’s very passivity is the film’s point: she is a young woman for whom the hopes she possesses at the beginning of the film are fulfilled against her wildest dreams. She becomes the beauty queen of the title, but out of the ugliest of circumstances. In one scene where the women are trotted on to the stage to offer up their personality and their drives, the woman before Laura, the MC informs us, desires an utterly unthinking contradiction: she wants to travel the world, saving the planet. When Laura is asked she cannot speak, but only cry, far more aware of the contradictions at work in a state where the reason she is on the stage is because the gangsters have bought a place in the contest for her. It is not that Laura isn’t beautiful enough. She is tall, slender, with large, wide eyes and succulent, full lips. She looks a clear beauty next to the runner-up who was obviously expecting to win the contest, but where before her beauty was half-concealed in the casual, inexpensive clothes she was wearing (Laura’s a working class girl), dressed up in a stunning gown her life is no longer her own. The film’s purpose is to rob the character of agency in relation to action, beauty and even morality.
Is the character she shops to the gangsters one of the few honest men in this environment? There is nothing to indicate he isn’t, while the two characters she trusts – the cop early in the film and the General late on – are authority figures she believes in to the detriment of her own well-being and human decency. The cop is in cahoots with the gangsters; the General a corrupt figure of the state, an old man who clearly sees it as some modern equivalent of prima nocta to take the beauty queens after they’ve won the title. Thus while Laura can’t act, can’t easily move her body through space in relation to her environment – evident when for example the gangster releases her only for Laura to realise that she has nowhere to go: she is in the middle of the desert, dressed in a beauty queen outfit – neither can she make active moral decisions. In this sense such a decision would be where someone weighs up the likelihood of the right action based on the variables at their disposal, but of course just as Laura is limited in her actions, so she is limited in seeing these variables. When she whispers to the General that the gangsters are trying to kill him, how can she know that some of them are in league with the president?
What is interesting above all else about Miss Bala is that it is an issue film that manages to contain its issues within sensitivity of form. There are numerous films that want to film a message, and one doesn’t doubt that in his statements about contemporary Mexico that Naranjo is one of those filmmakers, but he also wants to escape the issue form. “I think films, especially when they deal with society things they tend to be very didactic,” he says in Eye for Film, “very literal and with a lot of dialogue.” If we compare the film to a Holocaust movie like Amen, one can see the difference between a filmed message and an issue filmed. In Costa-Gavras’s film he offers numerous scenes where the viewer is essentially perceptually static as characters converse back and forth about the horrifying treatment of the Jews. As the lead character happens to have witnessed their gassing, in his role as an expert on the use of Zyklon B, so he tries to convince various people throughout the film of what is happening to Jewish people in the various death camps. Whether it is talking to his father-in-law, to the Catholic church, or friends, the film merely tries to find the least unexciting way of filming these frequent dialogue exchanges. It is as though Costa-Gavras asked no deeper a question formally than to muse over how he could tell this important (and true) story dramatically, as he tries to keep an audience engaged in the face of the indifference of most of those around the central character. What he doesn’t do is think cinematically, and this is perhaps because of Costa-Gavras’s moral decency as opposed to Naranjo’s aesthetic opportunism; yet it is in the latter that often original cinema exists. The worthy but plodding artist (Costa-Gavras in this instance, though he has obviously made more interesting films in the past like Z and State of Siege), wants to be fair to the subject, to the facts of the case and to the memory of a brave man whose reputation for many years was traduced as he took his own life when people insisted he was part of the Final Solution, and not one of the few addressing the terrible problem. But the aesthetic ‘opportunist’ sees out of an issue a chance to invigorate their art, so that the subject proves secondary to the form that the subject offers up, yet without of course simply exploiting that event.
In this sense Naranjo resembles another Latin American filmmaker Pablo Larrain, who in both Tony Manero and Post-Mortem sees the events of Chile in the seventies as a chance to enquire into dissuasiveness of character in the former and off-screen space in the latter. In the first film he wonders what brutal self-interest can really look like in a society which admits that is exactly what it expects from its citizens after rejecting Socialist possibilities under Allende, and in the latter, the mysteriousness of a coup d’etat as Pinochet takes over. Each film gives Larrain the chance not first and foremost to comment on Chilean society, but the opportunity to couch an aesthetic problem.
This is also the case with Naranjo here. What is it to be devoid of agency not as a social problem, with its poverty, its bad housing, its inevitable alcoholism, familial abuse etc., but as a cinematic mode? One can easily imagine a couple of scenes in the film differently. That early moment where Laura is in the toilet as the gangsters come into the building could have been much more actively filmed from Laura’s perspective. She could have seen them coming in, crouched in the toilet and then as they moved into the club, ran away to get help, with the police arriving maybe too late to save lives, but without us feeling that Laura had lost her agency. Later in the film, when Laura is in the General’s hotel bedroom and the bullets are flying, Laura crouches against the wall and then under the bed. She doesn’t offer any gesture of escape, and there is the moment where Laura is under the bed and the entire agency in the moment is with . As he attends to what seems like a dying body, we wonder whether he will spot Laura under the bed, or whether he’ll be oblivious to her presence. Again the film gives Laura no power in the scene, though another director might for example show a gun nearby that Laura potentially could grab. Even if she weren’t successful in her attempt, even if she ended up being shot by the gangster, there would have been moments of agency that would have left us momentarily in her actions, and not mainly in her passive state.
It is as if Naranjo wanted to address not the state of Mexico as a social problem, but wanted out of the social problem to find a first principle that would transcend the specific and elevate itself into an idea, and that idea is surely the problem of impotence. When by the end of the film it seems that the corruption takes place at the highest level, then every action is contained by a greater inaction. Naranjo’s achievement is to use the crisis in Mexican politics to explore certain states of feeling. “So that was the origin, to research and to talk about that, to talk about a general feeling of fear and distrust for the law, for the authorities and for the criminals”, he says in View magazine, “a distrust about everything that’s around you and I wanted to comment on that.” Yet what we have explored here is that Naranjo’s is a cinematic more than a dramatic commentary, an aesthetic opportunism that is the opposite of worthy and arrives at both the socio-politically and aesthetically worthwhile. For the dramatic wants no more than to do justice to the subject, as if justification resides in the fidelity to the actuality that the film is based upon. But what it doesn’t do is question the notion that a fidelity to these facts is often couched in a twofold predictability. On the one hand there is a notion of what reality is, and the other what drama happens to be. Reality cannot be filmed because the film is not a documentary and the event is in the past, so all one can do is dramatise the subject in the most immediate way possible. That is what Costa-Gavras does with Amen, but as a consequence the gap between the reality of the past and the dramatisation in the present feels too easy. So often one is caught in stale emotional reactions as we have all the hindsight and none of the risks the characters in the film possess. Our dramatic relationships with the film is persuasive as we easily side with the good characters, and like our hero want to root out evil, and will be suitably outraged at the end as he takes his own life while the bad Nazi of course goes off to live in Argentina. Not only does the film barely exercise our perceptual faculties; it doesn’t do much with our moral ones either. However, the cinematic doesn’t assume reality is one thing and cinema another; more that the cinematic event is a reality; that it wants to create ethical and perceptual spaces with some of the ambiguity of life, and knows that reality is always too amorphous to be dramatised; it can only be captured cinematically; through saying film is a window onto the world, but as with all windows can only show a limited view of the real.