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Throughout Latin America, stories about drug lords have permeated popular culture.
A television series called The Cartel of the Snitches is hugely popular in Colombia. In Mexico, ballads called narcocorridos recount the exploits of drug runners, and soap operas glamorize the lives of drug lords.
But a new movie called Miss Bala that's out in Mexico right now is being hailed as something quite different in the genre of narco-inspired art. It captures the terror caused by Mexico's ongoing drug war, and some critics have complained that it's too close to reality.
In the movie Miss Bala, the main character, Laura, sets out to enter the Miss Baja California competition in Tijuana. By no fault of her own, she ends up getting sucked deep into the world of a drug gang. The title of the movie, playing off the beauty pageant theme, means "Miss Bullet."
The bubbly, vacuous world of the beauty pageant clashes sharply against the brutal cartel violence playing out in the streets.
Gerardo Naranjo, who directed the film, says the inspiration for the story came from the arrest of the former winner of the beauty pageant for the Mexican state of Sinaloa. In 2008, Miss Sinaloa was paraded in handcuffs in front of the media, along with a group of alleged cartel members.
Capturing Fear And Despair
Naranjo says he wanted to make a movie that captures the feeling of despair that's spread across much of Mexico.
"So when we began the film, we said: What if we made a film that's not about anything we've been seeing on the news, not about dead bodies, not about blood, not about the drugs," Naranjo says. "But about this state of fear that people have. And that was the goal."
Early in Miss Bala, Laura inadvertently witnesses an attack by the gang Las Estrellas on a group of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents while they are partying in Tijuana. There are no good guys in this movie. The U.S. officials are sleazy, the local police are corrupt, and the gang members are brutal.
Soon after abducting Laura, the leader of Las Estrellas, Lino, is sitting beside her in the back seat of a car in a vacant parking garage. He whispers that he's going to help her.
From that moment on, Lino uses the beauty pageant contestant in every way possible — as a smuggler, a decoy, a courier and a whore.
Daniel Hernandez, writing in a blog for The Los Angeles Times, called watching Miss Bala "an exercise in helplessness, and ultimately, hopelessness."
Box Office Success
Given the film's bleak message, Miss Bala is doing surprisingly well at the box office. Carlos Gomez Iniesta, the editor-in-chief of Cinepremiere magazine in Mexico City, says this film makes a statement about the collapse of public security that's accompanied President Felipe Calderon's drug war.
"I think the film portrays that if you're the victim of these guys, it's almost impossible for anyone to help you," Iniesta says. "That's the final message for me. So it's really hard to see my country like that."
Gomez says Miss Bala is an important film in Mexico right now. It's by a relatively young director, it's centered around the dominant political issue of the day, and, Gomez says, it doesn't try to glamorize the drug trade. The cartel members often seem bored by the mundane work of killing people and dumping bodies.
Gomez says director Naranjo shows the gang members as ordinary workers trudging along at their trade.
"They are not the lords," Gomez says. "They are not the king of the land. They are like normal people, really workers."
Other films have taken very different approaches to the subject. Many paint the drug lords as smart, handsome heroes surrounded by luxury cars and busty women. Last year, the film El Infierno used piles of dead bodies for comic relief.
Director Naranjo says he wanted to make a movie about Mexico at a time when criminals have gained unprecedented power.
"No, I have no intention of giving hope in the film," Naranjo says. "I think it has to be a portrayal of the times we are living. And I think, you know, I think I would be lying if I proposed a way out, because I don't think we know the way out.
Miss Bala tracks one ordinary citizen's torment in the midst of the drug war. The viewer, at least in Mexico, isn't allowed to forget that Laura's descent into hell could be real.