There’s nothing quite so depressing and deflating as falling in love with a film that you know is audacious and highly disciplined in the rockin’ high style and art-film achievement realm, and then you see it again with some Joe Schmoe Academy members and they go “ehh, I don’t know, it’s pretty good, not bad,” etc. Your spirit sinks into the swamp as you try to explain what they’ve all-but-completely missed.
(l. to r.) Miss Bala director Gerado Naranjo, Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni.
Outwardly you’re smiling and maintaining your composure but inwardly you’re going “oh, my God” and reminding yourself that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink it.
I had a moment like this following last night’s special invitational screening of Gerardo Naranjo‘s Miss Bala (20th Century Fox Int’l, 1.20.12), which is not “pretty good” or “meh” or “not bad” but incontestably brilliant. It’s a combination art film-and-violent action thriller that stays within the P.O.V. and the sensibility of a terrified victim (Stephanie Sigman‘s “Laura Guerrero”), and always keeps the violence, ignited by a ruthless Mexican drug-dealing gang, at a certain remove. It tells the story without any flash-bang cutting or jacked-up whirlygig camerawork or any other trick that puts you into the danger.
Unlike 97% of the action films out there, Miss Bala never revels in action adrenaline highs. It never pulls a Tarantino by saying to the audience, “Yes, of course, these are deplorable characters indulging in sadistic violence …but isn’t it fun to follow them around? Wheeee!” That’s one thing that qualifies it as an art film, and why guys like NY Film Festival honcho Scott Foundas have said it’s quite similar to a Michelangelo Antonioni film, or more particularly to The Passenger.
I shared the Antonioni analogy with former producer and “Real Geezers” commentator Marcia Nasatir last night and she emphatically agreed.
Indiewire‘s Anne Thompson, who attended the same screening and after-event, said that Miss Bala is also similar to Matteo Gerrone‘s Gomorrah. But unlike that Italian maifiooso film, Miss Bala has a charismatic and sympathetic lead performer (i.e., Sigman) who’s front and center during the whole ride while Gomorrah is an ensemble piece, and much darker and grimmer and utterly nihilistic.
Some women are having problems with the fact that Sigman’s character is cowed and afraid from the very beginning to the very end. We’ve all been trained to expect a lead character to somehow take charge of the situation and “do something” by the time Act Three rolls around. I mentioned the same thing about Elizabeth Olsen‘s character when I reviewed Martha Marcy May Marlene, to wit: “Once act three began I wanted her to do something, dammit…anything. Woman up!” But Naranjo isn’t just telling Sigman’s character’s story. He’s doing social portraiture by showing what a hell-hole Mexico has become since the drug wars began in ’06. He’s refusing to paste an uplifting ending upon a situation that defies that.
Anyway, I have a solution to try and push Miss Bala into the consciousness of Academy voters. Tell them over and over and over that “it’s an Antonioni film manifested through the skill of a brilliant young Mexican director.”
Most industry professionals and hangers-on will probably “hear” that, I think. Even the dilletantes have some knowledge of Antonioni, who became an art-film legend roughly 51 and a half years ago, starting with the May 1960 Cannes Film Festival debut of L’Avventura. James Toback used to deal with a New York-based distributor, a man he regarded as a thick-fingered vulgarian type, who would refer to the Italian director as “Tonioni.” It obviously meant something, he felt, that even a ruffian like this knew that Antonioni was important. So in most cases, I suspect, the name “Antonioni”, even though he peaked some 40 to 45 years ago, will unlock the door and let some light in.
The reason I included Orson Welles in the above triptych is that he used a similar ruse to unlock the minds of a film crew when he was shooting a film in the ’50s. It was a surreal scene that didn’t make a lot of sense in a certain light, and his dp and lighting guy and production designer and others were saying “what the hell is this scene about?” And Welles (or so the story goes) said to them, “Listen, guys, you have to understand that it’s a dream sequence.” And once they heard those two words they all relaxed and said, “Oh, we get it now!…fine, no worries…why didn’t you just say ‘dream sequence’ before?”