Cinema Scope 48 Preview: Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico) – Contemporary World Cinema
The opening sequence of Miss Bala clings closely to its main character while coyly denying us a look at her face for as long as possible. This is partly because the build-up is worth it—star Stephanie Sigman is as gorgeous as she needs to be in a movie about feminine grace under fire—and partly because Gerardo Naranjo is being clever. That’s not necessarily a compliment, although it does put him ahead of certain of his countrymen. Alejandro Gonzaléz Iñárritu’s Biutiful (2010), which put Javier Bardem through the ringer to make a point about the political, economic and social fissures running through Spanish society was the work of a soulful moron. Miss Bala, which puts Sigman through the ringer to make a point about the catastrophic effects of the drug war on Mexican society is the work of a bright, essentially playful director who maybe wants to be Iñárritu just a little bit. This is not one of his bright ideas.
It was, however, a good idea to switch to long takes, especially after the crazy rhythms of I’m Gonna Explode (2007), which took its restless cues and coy detachment from Pierrot le fou (1965). That film cut its scenes to ribbons; by contrast, Miss Bala draws its scenes out so long that almost every passage of the film is a major event. No sooner has Sigman’s Laura turned around and come into view than she’s signing up for a beauty pageant in Tijuana with her best friend Suzu; when the latter disappears into the bowels of a warehouse rave (significantly populated by American DEA agents), Laura follows her. A shot foregrounding her against a grimy white hallway during her exit acquires a sinister dimension when she—and we—notice shadowy figures descending from the ceiling; she crouches against the wall, terrified, while the interlopers prepare to massacre the partygoers a few steps away.
It’s the first time that Laura will be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and certainly not the last: Miss Bala’s rhythm is essentially picaresque, buffeting its heroine between dangerous situations and observing her resourcefulness in the face of extreme danger. Each new scenario starts mundanely before becoming laced with dread and finally erupting into violence. This is both enjoyable and more than a little bit annoying once you cotton on to Naranjo’s trick. (A one-line review of the film would do well to quote Ron Burgundy: “That escalated quickly.”) Having escaped the shootout by just a few lustrous hairs, Laura goes to a traffic cop for help and ends up being driven right into the hands of the drug-runners who are after her; spared by the gang’s leader Lino (Noe Hernandez), she reluctantly agrees to drive a car out of an underground parking garage only to almost get run down by the cops. And then, a few scenes later, after another apparent escape, she’s literally run down by a cop—an American DEA agent who tackles her to the ground, pumps her for information, and sends her home bruised and humiliated.
The gradual, and eventually total, erosion of Laura’s agency is not some failure of imagination: Miss Bala is not an actively misogynist film. But it is maybe accidentally paternalistic. Laura’s immersion in a nightmare world isn’t her fault—and neither, clearly, is her inability to emerge from it—but it does ultimately validate Laura’s father’s warnings that it’s safer to just stay home. Not that Sigman plays the character as a rebel; we don’t know enough about her to guess whether or not her predicament is a self-fulfilling prophecy. She’s a complete blank, made compelling to us by the fact of her utter helplessness, and also of course by her looks, which Naranjo exploits even as he keeps nudging us in the ribs about the exploitation of female beauty.
The title, after all, is a play on the Miss Baja Pageant: not content with simply possessing Laura, Lino becomes a kind of patron, using his muscle to reinstate her in the contest. This interlude may be the film’s best-sustained sequence, wherein our shell-shocked heroine—who has to this point survived enough close encounters with gun-toting drug dealers to fill out an entire season of 24—hobbles through a low-rent swimsuit competition and finds herself dazedly accepting a tiara, as a more poised contestant breaks down in jealous, justified tears. Naranjo achieves the same weirdly muted quality here that made Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (2008) so hypnotic (another movie about a woman without any agency of her own, her groggy movements lubricated entirely based on her tax bracket).
If Miss Bala had ended at the pageant, it would have been a bravura throwaway, a glib, entertaining knee-slapper about how a poor girl’s innocent celebrity aspirations actually led her right to the winner’s podium, albeit by way of a Stygian descent. But Miss Bala keeps going, and it becomes necessary to wonder what, exactly, Naranjo has on his mind. The script, which the director co-wrote with Mauricio Katz, is loosely based on a real event, which to some extent justifies the long (and, ironically, completely implausible) final stretch where Laura becomes the fall girl for Lino’s criminal operation: she gets literally and figuratively fucked over, and the film ends as it started, with her face (now-battered) turned away from us. There are a lot of effective little devices in these final passages, like a circular camera movement describing the elaborate death by hanging of the pushy DEA agent from earlier, or the similarities between the staging of the press conference about Laura’s arrest and the beauty pageant, or the way the character’s vulnerability (and last vestiges of purity) are visualized in a final, hyper-violent set-piece that finds her cowering under a bed in a snow-white bra. These touches are all very clever.
But are they smart? Miss Bala undoubtedly has a point to make: that the drug war, if you hadn’t heard, is bad news. There’s a tension between the painstaking vagary of the narrative, which supplies little in the way of hand-holding exposition about Lino’s crew or the DEA agents (and is even fuzzier on the question of whether there’s some collaboration across the aisle) and the attempts at docudrama reportage (found not only in the real-life source material, but also in a closing title card that gives some facts and figures about the literal and human cost of drug trafficking in Mexico) and that tension is never quite reconciled. 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. Three Amigos are plenty of company; to add another would be a waste of his and our time.
Romeo Onze (Ivan Grbovic, Canada) – Canada First!
This sensitively rendered debut feature by Montreal’s Ivan Grbovic is named not after its lead character but the person he’d like to be. When posing as “Romeo Onze” (Romeo Eleven in English) on a message board, Rami (Ali Ammar) gets to be the kind of guy who’s continually jetting off for glamorous business deals and looking to find some time in his busy schedule so he can get to know you better over dinner.
Of course, Rami’s actual schedule is not so hectic, especially since he began cutting his classes at a vocational school in order to wander shopping malls. At night, he does shifts at his father’s restaurant or plays reluctant chaperone for his younger sister, who’s altogether more successful at creating a life for herself beyond the confines of their strict Lebanese-Canadian family.
Rami’s own efforts at same are impaired by his shyness and his difficulties walking, his physical disabilities being the result of a childhood illness hinted at during a sequence of home-movie footage. As played by first-time actor Ali Ammar, he’s a figure who elicits sympathy but not pity—Rami’s personality is too prickly and his thoughts too hard to read until the film’s final scenes. It’s also at this point when Grbovic sacrifices some of the cred he earns for the first hour’s closely observed, Dardenne-style naturalism by reaching for an easier resolution than Rami’s story deserves.
Nevertheless, what’s good in Romeo Onze is often very good. Grbovic and co-writer/cinematographer Sara Mishara maintain a terse, unsentimental view of Rami, refusing to merely present him as the kind of melancholy misfit who’s a favourite subject of first-time filmmakers. Indeed, they take pains to also show him as part of a family and a wider community, one that may have more room for him than he realizes.
The Cat Vanishes (Carlos Sorin, Argentina) – City to City: Buenos Aires
A sweeping generalization: there is perhaps no greater flaw in a film than over-exposition. It is the cinematic equivalent of taking the hand of a mature adult to guide them across the street—and boy, does veteran Argentine director Carlos Sorin ever want to hold our hand. A domestic tale turned nightmare, City to City selection The Cat Vanishes centres around fifty-ish Buenos Aires housewife Beatriz (Beatriz Spelzini), whose husband Luis (Luis Luque) is coming off some forced psych ward downtime following his assault of a colleague whom he claims had stolen his research. Following the long opening sequence where this is all explained in literally clinical detail (as part of Luis’ hospital release) The Cat Vanishes begins with a “cured” Luis returning home. But Beatriz and the family cat are creeped out by his strange behaviour, and soon enough, the latter (in case you couldn’t guess) disappears.
One point of possible interest in the film is Sorin’s experimentation with sound. The score plays with melodramatic constructions of music, meant to guide the audience’s understanding of Beatriz’s inner emotional state: as she prepares the home for Luis’ return a full romantic orchestra plays; as she begins to feel threatened, a muted throbbing score plays under the sound of thunder, amplifying her paranoia. The device that finds Beatriz more often than not dressed to match her home’s interiors, heightening a sense of entrapment, is another in a series of superficial effects. Unfortunately, The Cat Vanishes never really exploits the full dramatic possibilities of domestic terror, nor does it attempt to document a full meltdown a la The Yellow Wallpaper. Having Beatriz claw at the walls of her room as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s protagonist does in the Victorian novella would have made for an actual ending. Instead, we are left with a paltry payoff, wondering if the film might have worked better from the point of view of the cat, as he’s not really around for most of it. Lucky guy.
Habemus Papam (Nanni Moretti, Italy) – Special Presentations
It’s hard to believe that Nanni Moretti was once considered a trenchant satirist. In recent years, the Italian star/writer/director has seemed less like a triple threat than a purveyor of tired shtick. While his latest venture, Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope), could have been a Buñuelian satire of the Vatican in more assured hands, this wanly comic saga of a reluctant pope is an almost complete fizzle. The film’s departure point is the College of Cardinals’ efforts to elect a new pontiff after the previous spiritual leader’s death. The harried cardinals find it difficult to reach a consensus and finally stumble into a fateful compromise by elevating the self-deprecating, enormously insecure Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) to the papacy. When the panic-stricken Melville refuses to embrace his new duties, Professor Brezzi (Nanni Moretti), an irascible therapist, is called in to treat the neurotic Holy Father. With his trademark eruptions of rage (which were once mildly amusing in better films such as Caro Diario but are now merely tiresome), Moretti’s atheist shrink is far from a convincing advertisement for anti-clericalism and, unsurprisingly, the audience’s sympathies can only migrate to the nebbishy pontiff. Named, for no apparent reason, after the author of Moby Dick, Melville wanders off to incorrigibly secularist central Rome and finds refuge with a theatre company rehearsing Chekhov’s The Sea Gull. Despite Moretti’s pointless literary allusions, the film possesses one saving grace: Piccoli, a resourceful octogenarian who fleshes out a thin character with brio and good humour, provides the few moments of pleasure that can be derived from this misfire.
i am a good person / i am a bad person (Ingrid Veninger, Canada) – Vanguard
That the stylized title of Ingrid Veninger’s latest pUNK Films Production so spitefully snubs the best efforts of any word processor’s built-in auto-correct settings is probably the least of its properly punkish gestures. Shot, like Veninger’s previous features Modra (2010) and Only (co-director, 2008), for what looks like the cost of a cup of coffee, good person / bad person puts Veninger squarely in front of the camera, playing a shadow version of herself as indie filmmaker Ruby White. Veninger’s real-life daughter, Hallie Switzer, co-stars as Sara, Ruby’s seventeen-year old daughter strong-armed into accompanying her mother across Europe as she tours her latest film, Headshots, which is apparently about penises (we see only a glimpse of the closing montage, which features more full-frontal nudity than Take this Waltz).
Stressed by a potential pregnancy and frustrated with her mother’s hard-partying (and affected, non-prescription eyewear), Sara splits to France to reconnect with her cousins, while Ruby heads to Berlin, where she stalks around graffiti-dashed city squares passing out flyers for Headshots. While the coming-of-age arcs of Only and Modra felt at times a wee precious, good person / bad person nixes the cutesiness entirely. Opening on likely the most rote oral sex scene ever captured in a non-pornographic film, Veninger’s latest compassionately outlines the trials of the defiantly DIY indie filmmaker (like being asked “Do you consider yourself a filmmaker?” during a festival Q&A), and the mother/daughter tensions are made all more authentically felt by the appropriately nepotistic casting, which imbues Ruby and Sara’s relationship with a productive degree of uneasy verisimilitude. Par for the course, i am a good person / i am a bad person, apprehends Veninger’s refreshing indie spirit, again proving that, yes, we should very much consider her a filmmaker, as compassionate as ever. Funnier, too.
Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes, UK) – Special Presentations
Depending on who’s directing, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus can be a problem play, beset with certain structural and dramatic inconsistencies as well as a nagging emotional frigidity that tends to keep it off of the repertoires of even the most dedicated Shakespearean companies. (I’ve watched hundreds of Shakespeare productions, and can’t recall the last time I saw the play on stage.) The unappetizing thought of Ralph Fiennes directing himself as Coriolanus in his first film bumped it off the must-see list at the Berlinale, and hardly anyone talked about it there. Seen several months later, this disinterest is odd, for Fiennes’ film is extremely interesting and gamely rescues the play from its demi-obscurity. Though the transfer of the play’s ancient Roman milieu to a contemporary setting that connects Rome with the Balkans feels somewhat awkward at first, it soon becomes a vivid world that’s more than merely an exotic backdrop. As an unrepentant militarist fascist betrayed by his fellow Romans, Coriolanus is a complex figure in the Benedict Arnold mold, and Fiennes grows fiercer by the scene. Vanessa Redgrave is an astonishing force of maternal care and rage in what will be remembered as one of her great screen performances.