02/04/2012 10:18 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'Miss Bala' Paints a Realistic Picture of Mexico's Drug Violence

It's hard sometimes to get a true sense of the drug war that's consuming Mexico and other parts of Latin America. The mind-numbing statistics (40,000 dead) and the onslaught of gruesome stories don't do justice to the scale of destruction it has brought to many families and communities.

Mexican Gerardo Naranjo's Miss Bala does as well as any film I've seen to show the effects of "El Narco" crime on Mexican society. It's the story of a would-be Baja, California beauty queen who accidentally gets pulled into the world of drug cartels. But rather than the fast-paced action-flick Hollywood usually gives us, Miss Bala offers a tense, dark, and realistic meditation on today's Mexico.

Shot from the point of view of the beautiful, bewildered lead character, Laura (Stephanie Sigman), we consciously get only her view of the narco's world. Like real life, sometimes we don't know exactly what we have seen until later, which only adds to the terror. Words are few, but the realistic portrayal of Mexican cities and environments only amplifies the film's power.

Given the film's sometimes appalling sequences, it might seem like a far-fetched tale; however the story is actually based on a real-life incident from a few years ago. The story caught the attention of the director and the film brilliantly explores themes of classism, materialism, and corruption as a way of life. Mexico is seen as a war zone, but one that most of us recognize.

This film's Mexico is one where people can't rely on one another and there is no sense of justice. How can there be when anything can be bought, when you can't trust government to help, and the array of forces against rising out of poverty are stacked so high? Who can blame Mexicans for feeling like they have no choice but to migrate?

The cinematography and editing are first-rate, and I expect Sigman to be a star. Executive producers Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna deserve kudos for bringing the movie to the big screen, as does that the Mexican Government for selecting this difficult film as their official Oscar submission (although the Academy sadly denied it a nomination).
By the ending, one could easily imply that Miss Bala is meant to symbolize all of Mexico - stuck in a terrible situation in which they aren't in control. Blame rests all around, not least of all on American drug consumers and gun sellers.

By bringing the intolerable conditions down to the human level, Miss Bala succeeds in making the tragedy dynamic and relatable. This is a cry for action before things spin too far out of control.