Much like the Bolsheviks and Czarists battling in Miklos Jansco’s harrowing The Red and the White, Gerardo Naranjo makes the often-faceless Tijuana police and brutal criminal syndicate sound ideologically identical in his harrowing formalist assault Miss Bala. The long take plays a crucial role in establishing the infinite possibilities of violence and death in any one given moment, and Naranjo sees the overlapping patterns of off-screen sound as audible meat grinders crushing any potential hope for innocent characters in distress. This rigorously cyclical aesthetic is experienced through the eyes of 23-year-old Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), a young woman who gets plunged into an ongoing hell after witnessing a brutal massacre of D.E.A. agents at a south-of-the-border nightclub. After her initial exposure to this underworld of professional killers, Laura spends the rest of the film trying to regain her sense of freedom. Even when she momentarily escapes the stranglehold of either the overbearing cops or ruthless killers, she’s instantly recaptured, as if both groups wield a menacing omniscient quality no one can ever escape.
Style almost always references theme in Miss Bala, and the stifling power of bureaucracy and corruption sprouts up in every dynamic set piece through meticulous camera movement and long takes. Often, Naranjo focuses on smaller moments of silence and shock amid the chaotic gunfire or explosions, like when Laura is caught in a mangled truck dazed and confused as a flurry of automatic weapons fire rages beyond the frame. As her cartel captors pull her from the wreckage, Naranjo tracks along a parallel axis, capturing the depth of the frame in stunning detail. Later, as if to show he could inverse this wide-angle sequence, Naranjo pulls in tight on Laura’s near-naked body sprawled out in the corner of a hotel room shredded by bullets, the flakes of paint and wood falling slowly on her smooth skin.
While Laura tries to process the various nightmares she experiences (driving a car full of bodies, acting as a mule for ammunitions, or seducing a powerful general to set up his assassination), she can never fully recover from any one scenario due to the ghostly quality of her male captors. While extreme violence becomes a great indicator of Mexico’s rapidly disintegrating social system, Naranjo also indicts the glossy beauty pageant Laura enters as another debilitating and untrustworthy institution created by the warring parties of male aggressors. Miss Bala ultimately becomes a master class in off-screen space due to it’s constantly overlapping sound design, brilliantly examining the powerful façades crippling modern-day Mexico from within, along with the stunning similarities both sides share when it comes to violent practice and style. Laura’s dynamic quest through the underworld of the modern Mexican experience feels overtly pragmatic, as if the filmmakers want the characters to survive one moment at a time before being jettisoned into another sudden onslaught of carnage. As a political and social document, Miss Bala is shock, awe, and pure cinema at its finest.
Nanny Moretti’s warm and affecting Habemus Papam couldn’t be farther from Miss Bala in style, but it actually shares some of the same concerns about prison-like institutions within the modern state. The Pope is dead and the Cardinals amass in Vatican City to elect a new pontiff. After an absurdly funny opening, which finds an Italian reporter calling the Cardinal’s stroll as if it were a sporting event, the holy figures vote a new Pope, Il Papa (Michel Piccoli), into divine power. Upon learning of his position and that he’s about to become the ruler of one billion believers, Il Papa clams up and refuses to accept. There’s a deep fracture in his faith that can’t be rectified and his overseers call in a renowned psychologist (Morreti) to help Il Papa regain the confidence he needs to lead. Il Papa later escapes to the streets of Rome to rediscover his youth, and while some of these scenes are extremely sentimental they always feel true to Il Papa’s enormous conflict.
From the vantage point of Moretti’s “nonbeliever” academic, we experience both the numbing routine of Vatican life and the potential for inspiration (best seen in a great volleyball tournament between Cardinals) despite the endless red tape. While Il Papa is absent, the bureaucratic hierarchies attempt to fake his appearance and healing process, adding more depth to the increasingly poignant portrait of all-encompassing imprisonment. But Habemus Papum is no King’s Speech rip-off; it’s most definitely an enticing and complex statement on the different prisons (religion, sport, marriage) we trap ourselves in to protect the status quo. As an antidote to a type of universal malaise about identity, Moretti merges all of these experiences together in order to free up each one again from the limitations of apathy. For the most part, he succeeds under the grace of God.
Arirang, a kind of morbid pseudo-therapy session/confessional from director Kim Ki-duk, is one of those self-indulgent messes only a very talented but screwed up auteur could make when he hits rock-bottom. At 100 minutes, this feature-length one-man show contains long passages where Kim interviews himself, playing both the role of critical observer and tormented patient. Even in a hilarious moment where Kim’s shadow addresses his distraught self, Arirang seems to go on forever. Straggly haired and living in seclusion on a mountain, Kim eats spoiled vegetables and fruits, makes a lot of espresso from his home-made machine, and talks passionately about the many personal and professional reasons he hasn’t made a film in three years. Moments from the film occasionally ring out with improvisational beauty (like when Kim sits alone on his porch looking out at the snowy countryside), but most of the film is bogged down by his endless whining and self-pitying. Shot on a crummy HD cam, Arirang looks as bad as it sounds. Before the film screened, Kim got onstage and said, “The film is like a self-portrait of myself,” but no one could have guessed what a delusional examination it would be for the obviously damaged director trying to self-medicate on his own homemade cinematic remedy. Oh, and Kim builds his own gun out of spare parts. Derangement incarnate.