Thursday, October 27, 2011

Festival Review #9: Further Thoughts on Miss Bala and Attenberg

Miss Bala

(Gerardo Naranjo)

Gerardo Naranjo's first two films, Drama/Mex and I'm Gonna Explode, had shown him to be one of those most exciting and interesting filmmakers working today, and Miss Bala further confirms this notion. Everyone keeps describing Miss Bala as an action film and while there are elements of a traditional action film (gangsters, drugs, kidnapping, shootouts), nothing in this film is handled as if it were an action film. The film is almost formalistic in its refusal to actually show any of the action. As Karl said, it is an action film that is not interested in the action. The camera stays steadfastly fixed on the main character, Laura, as all of these events happen around here. We hear things happening off camera, but we hardly ever see anything. Naranjo instead offers us complex and oblique long, fluid takes that remain fixed on Laura, her reactions and her trying to get away from these situations or just stay alive. And Naranjo never strays from this device; he doesn't do this in some of the scenes and then lets us see a few actions sequences; we only see fractured bits at certain moments when Laura is running past something. It is because of this refusal to really explore the "action" elements of this so-called action film that makes Miss Bala so interesting and leads me to think of it in formalist terms.

There are far more complex reasons, I think, for Naranjo's consistent focus only on Laura and his refusal to show us the action, and I believe this is really why the film is so successful. Naranjo has made a portrait of Mexican society in the guise of an action film. He is showing us what is happening and how life is in Mexico right now with drug cartels and an overwhelming corruption at all levels. Naranjo focuses on Laura because he is showing how easy it is for someone to get mixed up in all this. Laura isn't from Tijuana by accident; she is from a city in Mexico that is known as the center of the drug cartel wars that have been occurring for some time now. But not only his he showing us how omnipresent the drug cartels are, but also how corrupt these cartels have made almost every aspect of Mexican society. From pageant judges, to small time cops, to government officials, everyone seems to be working for the cartel. Every time Laura tries to do the right thing by telling someone what is happening to her, it backfires because it turns out they work with the cartel. Every single time. Miss Bala is a potent critique of Mexican society, its violence and corruption in the guise of an action film.

If you go into Miss Bala expecting to see an action film (as the badly made trailers may lead you to believe) then you will be disappointed, however, if you go in expecting to see something interesting and different from an incredibly gifted filmmaker then you will be more than rewarded. I hope Miss Bala comes out in Philadelphia because I think people should see it. Though the film is not as good as Naranjo's two previous films, it still shows a filmmaker in command of his art, who knows how to subvert genre, and who has a lot to say.

Naranjo's film is really indicative of what Mexican and other Central and South American films are doing so well right now. These filmmakers are trying to subvert Hollywood genres in every possible way by making bold and stylistic films. Not only are they interested in finding new ways to make films, but they are also making striking films about the countries and societies they are living in. Sometimes these critiques are subtle and sometimes they are obvious, but they are constantly showing us the problems with their countries and societies: the corruption, violence, poverty, and social inequalities that still run rampant. Americans like to pretend none of the above exist in our society and so we don't make films about these things, but we could take a cue from Central and South America.


(Athina Rachel Tsangari)

Speaking of countries that are making the most consistently bold and innovative new films, Greece has landed in the forefront of art house cinema in the last few years first with Dogtooth (Girogos Lanthimos) and now with Athina Rachel Tsangari's brilliant Attenberg. As Karl mentioned in his review, Attenberg is the film of the festival so far. An incredibly original, funny, innovative, and smart film, which takes chances in almost every scene and tries to find new ways to express its ideas. The story, as it were, is simple and as familiar to cinema goers as they come: a woman and her relationship with her best friend, her dying father, and her first love. As far as narrative, that's what the film is about, but the film is so clever and the scenes are so stylish and interesting that it doesn't even matter. Tsangari is using this incredibly simple premise to explore varying cinematic techniques. I could try and write what makes this film so amazing, but it would be difficult to put into words these delightful, absurd, and unexpected moments that happen throughout. And, like Central and South American films, Attenberg also seems to be a protest; a film dealing with Greek society (as Dogtooth also did) and what the younger generation in Greece see as outdated rules and social constructs. I really, really, really hope this film make it to Philadelphia because it is one of the best films of the year and so odd and so original and so funny and so compelling. Attenberg gives us at Shooting Wall hope that a film like this, so steadfastly non-mainstream, can be successful and find an audience.


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