NY Times mentions 4 Notable Mexican Films of the last two years
In the Crossfire of the Mexican War on Drugs
When Laura, the central character in the new Mexican film “Miss Bala,” stumbles into the control of a drug gang, we are snared in a mounting sense of dread. It starts from the moment she curls her long body to hide in the bathroom of a low-rent Tijuana disco as gunmen steal in to storm the dance hall, and grows in the sideways glance of the cop she goes to for help.
It is in the face of a quaking soldier waiting for the gang to attack and in Laura’s mute terror as the drug boss tapes packets of cash to her waist.
The film’s foreboding is a reflection of the national mood as Mexico enters the sixth year of the government’s frontal assault on drug traffickers. Estimates put the death toll around 50,000 since 2006, and the murders pile up relentlessly.
What feeds despair here more than the daily violence, though, is the suspicion that nobody in charge has the ability, the will or the integrity to defeat the criminals and the corruption that supports them. The anxiety that anyone can become a victim guides “Miss Bala.”
“There is no escape,” said Gerardo Naranjo, 40, the film’s director and co-writer, who wanted to make a film not about the narcos but about their victims. “She is a beautiful young woman in the north, where there is no law. What are the possibilities of her getting out? None.”
Battered and limp, Laura (Stephanie Sigman) simply endures. “Our society is acting like that,” Mr. Naranjo continued. “People are passive. We don’t know how to react to violence.”
“Miss Bala,” inspired by the arrest three years ago of a Mexican beauty queen with her drug-dealer boyfriend (she was later released), was screened at the Cannes, Toronto and New York film festivals. It is Mexico’s submission for the foreign-language Academy Award and opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.
The film has performed moderately well at the box office here, and commentators have been enthusiastic. “At a moment when blood drips from the newspapers, ‘Miss Bala’ concerns itself with something unexplored: the secret life of panic, the way that crime invades the everyday and mentally corrodes people who are outside its actions,” the novelist and essayist Juan Villoro wrote.
National trauma often spurs the home cinema to probe the wounds. Think of the films from the countries of the former Yugoslavia. But so far most Mexican filmmakers seem reluctant to deal directly with the drug war. Besides fear of a violent reaction from the cartels, one reason may be that the first movie about this Mexican tragedy — Luis Estrada’s “El Infierno,” released in 2010 — was so unflinching in its gaze that younger directors may be wary of approaching the same subject matter to avoid comparison, said Rafael Aviña, a film critic and screenwriter.
But he added that these directors were translating the fear and paranoia that the drug war was generating into other genres, like horror movies and science fiction, using them as metaphors for the current situation.
An acid satire, “El Infierno” (“Hell” in English), was a critical and box-office hit and featured one of the most memorable screen narcos in years, El Cochiloco (Joaquín Cosío), a barrel-chested psychopath with a raucous sense of humor and an unshakable loyalty to his childhood friend, Benny García (Damián Alcázar). Benny returns to his desolate hometown after 20 years in the United States to find it in the grip of a murderous drug boss, falling in with El Cochiloco and his gang of hitmen.
Mr. Estrada transforms the gore into humor, but he abruptly shifts the tone in torture scenes to make his audience squirm. And the ending, in which Benny’s nephew takes revenge, is Mr. Estrada’s bleak warning. “The past generation saw corruption and impunity as normal,” Mr. Estrada said. “Now there is a generation that sees violence as normal.”
Narco films in Mexico have been around since the 1970s, with filmmakers churning out dozens of formulaic versions. Pirated copies of the old movies sell in markets here, along with gruesome newer versions pumped out for home video.
Mr. Estrada, 49, turned the conventions of the old films on their head, but younger directors, Mr. Aviña said, may be wary of a genre associated with such low-end moviemaking. Conservative television networks in Mexico have mostly avoided the subject. But there is an appetite: “La Reina del Sur” (“The Queen of the South”), based on a novel by the Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte, is a joint American, Spanish and Colombian production (although much of its creative team is Mexican) that was a success here. With the melodrama of conventional telenovelas, it tracks a Mexican woman’s rise as a drug boss in Spain.
A few documentary filmmakers have begun to treat the topic obliquely. Natalia Almada spent a year in the Jardines del Humaya cemetery in Culiacán, in the heart of Mexican drug country, where the families of slain traffickers erect air-conditioned mausoleums to their fallen men.
Her resulting film, “El Velador” (“The Night Watchman”), is a meditation on what the violence has wrought without showing any of it. Loosely centered around Martín, the cemetery’s night watchman, the film unfolds fuguelike as the days repeat themselves, the camera lingering on the cracked shoes of a construction worker mixing concrete and a snack vendor peeling a mango for a little girl at a funeral.
“I always felt that there was this absurdity, this futility to the whole place,” Ms. Almada said. “That’s very much what we’re living through, this violence where you think it can’t get worse and it gets worse; it can’t get more grotesque, and it gets more grotesque.” (“El Velador” will be broadcast this year on the PBS series “POV.”)
In “Reportero” Bernardo Ruiz, a Mexican-born New York documentary filmmaker, follows the work of a reporter for Zeta, a Tijuana-based weekly that boldly covers the drug war. “It is about the constant threat of violence when you step outside of certain unspoken agreements,” he said.
Even though “Miss Bala” (bala means bullet) is fictional, Mr. Naranjo took documentary like care with his research, meeting with drug dealers inside and outside jail. “I really wanted to know how they communicated, how they dressed, how they talked, how they drove,” he said.
“It’s such a pathetic world,” he said. “It’s full of ignorance, paranoia.”
The drug boss Lino (Noé Hernández) is an uncommon movie narco. There is no bluster, only quiet cruelty and duplicity.
Laura is his pawn. Viewers are confused and uneasy because they see and hear only the fragments that Laura does — the same disjointed way they receive their news of the drug war.
“We didn’t want you to see the evil,” Mr. Naranjo said. “We wanted you to imagine it, because in the Mexican psyche the bad things are already in our hard drive.”