In Mexico, Laura (Stephanie Sigman), a young aspiring beauty queen, finds her dream turned against her when she unwillingly gets involved with a criminal group at war.

Mexican cartel drama heralds two new talents.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: The headlines about Mexico’s literal war on drugs are both damning and depressing; there is seemingly no end to the violent murders and accompanying flow of narcotics north into the vast American market. As the credits to this outstanding drama testify, 36,000 people have died between 2006 and 2011, but if the sheer scale is difficult to comprehend then Gerardo Naranjo’s film does a compelling job of personalising the brutal and incomprehensible. It’s not attempting to illuminate one part of Mexican life, instead it’s showing us that this is all there is. The influence and effects of the government’s fight against drub cartels permeate every strand of the nation’s existence.

Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) is a young woman who lives with her working class family in Baja, Mexico’s northernmost and westernmost state. Tall and striking, she has no more ambition than to enter the local beauty pageant, Miss Baja, recognising their long tradition of advancement in Latin American countries. Aided and abetted by her friend, Suzu (Lakshmi Picazo), she’s accepted as an entrant, but later that evening when she goes to find Suzu at a local club Laura finds herself witness to an ambush by a drug gang on the law enforcement officers relaxing inside.

She eventually flees, but the next day, when she’s still unable to contact her friend, Laura asks a local policeman if he knows anything. When he finds out she’s a witness he tells her she must make a statement, but then leaves her to be scooped up by the local cartel. This casual betrayal, a reversal of expectations, is typical of what transpires, and as the movie unfolds both its protagonist and the audience are left partially confused and often shocked by how life in Mexico is being remade into something cruel and seemingly surreal. Life goes on, even as the world spins off its axis.

The cartel, commanded in the field by brutish, matter-of-fact Lino (Noe Hernandez), interrogate Laura – who is immediately and convincingly fearful for her life – and then put her to use. She looks like an unlikely courier so she’s given a car to drive and park, and later, in a telling reference to the pageant world, she’s corseted with a makeshift money belt and used as a courier into the United States. Both the drug trade and the pageants create artificial environments, and when the two eventually meet there’s a damningly casual corruption of one by the other. (Miss Bala roughly translates as Miss Bullet.)

Naranjo uses long, implacable takes to outline this world. His camera will pan slowly from Laura to what she is looking at, and his framing is provocatively precise, often cutting out extraneous information and leaving the essence – when you see Laura being scooped up by the cartel the police officer who betrays her is just a uniform shirt that quietly gets back into his official vehicle. A camera follows her down hallways or into cars, as she mutely takes the money and does what she’s told – the one time Laura flees she’s tracked to her family home, which is turned into a makeshift base as the drug forces fight running battles with the police and army.

There’s little debate about what she should do, her servitude is expected once she’s of use to the cartel, and the machinations of the growing conflict often bypass Laura and the audience. When she’s arrested by police it’s only for her phone, which ties into the cartel’s communications network. They take it and let her go, and the underlying message is that in such a struggle any individual is insignificant, and the strength of Stephanie Sigman’s performance is that she weighs up that numbing realisation against the individual desire to survive. It makes for an existential philosophy within the shell of an action movie, and pulling that off confirms Gerardo Neranjo is the latest in Mexico’s growing list of important filmmakers.

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1 hour 53 min
In Cinemas 22 November 2012,