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Beauty Is Only Skinned Deep

Miss Bala (2011)

Eniac Martínez/Fox International Productions

“Miss Bala” is an endlessly grim anecdote about the vicious Mexican drug cartels as seen from the perspective of a beauty queen loosely based on Miss Sinaloa 2008, Laura Elena Zúñiga. Whereas the real-life Ms. Zúñiga was allegedly dating a high-ranking leader of the Juárez Cartel, her movie counterpart, Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), seems decidedly less complicit.

Immediately upon entering the Miss Baja California pageant, Laura and her best friend Suzu (Lakshmi Picazo) hit the club where they are caught in the line of fire during a cartel’s brutal assault on American Drug Enforcement Administration agents. Having barely survived the ordeal, Laura goes back searching for the missing Suzu and gets herself kidnapped by the drug cartel in the process. In exchange for her life and the safety of her family, Laura becomes the cartel’s reluctant accomplice. From that point onward, the film offers little relief and no redemption from her plight.

Gerardo Naranjo, whose “I’m Gonna Explode” and “Drama/Mex” previously toured the U.S. art-house circuit, creates a wholly absorbing experience. For gringo moviegoers, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Amores perros” seems to be about the only existing reference point for this kind of intense and gritty realism in Mexican cinema. But “Miss Bala” is not without flaws. The ambiguity Mr. Naranjo has stripped away from Ms. Zúñiga’s cautionary tale is hardly made up for on the back end. It’s not for the lack of trying, either. Despite numerous plot holes along the way, the film is successful in stringing moviegoers along for the most part. But Mr. Naranjo’s clunky attempt at moral abstruseness during the climax creates confusion rather than profundity. Unlike “Gomorrah,” “Miss Bala” ultimately doesn’t have a whole lot to say about a society overrun by gangs aside from that it’s a pretty bleak existence.


Opens on Oct. 28 in Britain and on Jan. 20, 2012 in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed and edited by Gerardo Naranjo; written by Mr. Naranjo and Mauricio Katz ; director of photography, Mátyás Erdély; music by Emilio Kauderer; production design by Ivonne Fuentes; costumes by Anna Terrazas; produced by Pablo Cruz; released by Metrodome (Britain) and Fox International Productions (United States). In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. This film is rated 15 by B.B.F.C. and R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Stephanie Sigman (Laura Guerrero), Noe Hernández (Lino Valdez), Lakshmi Picazo (Suzu), James Russo (Jimmy) and José Yenque (Kike Camára).


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