A tour of hell with Miss Bala

First impression: Miss Bala is riveting, stomach-turning stuff… and likely to remain one of 2012′s most intense moviegoing experiences.

Gerardo Naranjo’s film is a nightmarish, no-way-out scenario, made worse if you realize that this is the kind of story playing out every day in the territories bloodied by the Mexican drug war. We get our occasional news summaries which supply vague impressions of corruption, but here’s a story that takes you on a tour down through the circles of hell, as witnessed and suffered by a young beauty pageant contestant.

It follows Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman in a harrowing performance), a quiet young woman of simple and somewhat ordinary dreams — like winning the Miss Baja pageant. When Laura steps into a nightclub to try and find her friend, she is in the worst of wrong places at the worst of wrong times. The nightclub is about to become a gangland battleground, and she’ll become a tool, a forced-labor errand runner for the stone-hearted overlord of the Tijuana drug cartel. She’ll become a victim of sexual abuse, a pawn in a sick game, exploited by criminals and lawmen alike.

Let me be frank: To sit down and watch this film is to volunteer for suffering without the hope of any big screen heroes to show up with the cavalry and save the day. It’s an invitation to receive the witness of a furious and heartbroken artist. It’s a lament for the women who suffer in the country of brutal, bloodthirsty men; women whose best hope is to survive the tyranny and corruption; women who learn to follow the orders of devils and to endure being treated as property and sex slaves.

In a way, Miss Bala shows us how The Hunger Games is happening in our own world, where people are used as pieces in a game that serves the game lords, while the media perpetuates a charade that dares to claim these “players” are valued for their femininity and beauty.

Everywhere Laura turns, there is corruption, until there is nowhere left to go. It’s a picture of hell on earth. It’s a horror film that refuses to employ any element of fantasy that would allow us to dismiss it as a fiction. It’s an ugly blast of truth, exposing one of the world’s worst cancers.

Perhaps it will inspire viewers to do what they can, even if all they can do is pray for Mexico and for all whose choices contribute to the perpetuation of this conflict.

Watching Miss Bala is a very unpleasant two hours. But it may take a lot of art like this to wake the world up to what’s happening, and a lot of willing viewers, including those who have the power to make a difference.

I felt sick and helpless at the end of the film. What can I do about the drug war in Mexico… apart from, well… not buying drugs?

But none of us are helpless, I remind myself. It’s a whole lot easier to sigh and make despairing remarks than it is to pray, to engage in warfare that is as much about powers we can’t see as it is about the powers we can. Perhaps I haven’t been given the power to effect swift and sweeping political change. But I do have the opportunity to pray. I have a feeling that the willful act of entering into this suffering — through art or any other gateway — is itself a way of bearing the burdens of others, and the heartache is itself the beginnings of prayer.

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