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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. Throughout Latin America, stories of drug lords permeate popular culture. A television series called "The Cartel of the Snitches" is a hit in Columbia, and in Mexico soap operas glamorize drug lords while ballads recount the exploits of drug runners.

Well, a new movie called "Miss Bala" is now out in Mexico and it's 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.

NPR's Jason Beaubien has our story from Mexico City.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MISS BALA")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Viva, viva, California.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

BEAUBIEN: 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 arrests of the former Miss Sinaloa. In 2008, Miss Sinaloa was paraded in handcuffs in front of the media, along with a group of alleged cartel members.

Naranjo says he wanted to make a movie that captures the feeling of despair that's spread across much of Mexico.

GERARDO NARANJO: So, you know, when we began the film, we said, what if we make a movie that is actually not about anything that we've been seeing on the news, not about dead bodies, not about blood, not about the drugs, but about this state of fear that people have and that was the goal.

BEAUBIEN: The title of the movie playing off the beauty pageant theme means "Miss Bullet." Early in "Miss Bala," Laura inadvertently witnesses an attack by the gang, Las Estrellas, on a group of U.S. drug enforcement agents. The DEA agents are partying in Tijuana. There are no good guys in this movie. The U.S. officials are sleazy. The local police are corrupt. The gang members are brutal.

Soon after abducting Laura, the leader of Las Estrellas, Lino, is sitting beside her in the backseat of a car in a vacant parking garage. He whispers that he's going to help her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MISS BALA")

NOE HERNANDEZ: (as Lino) (Foreign Language Spoken).

BEAUBIEN: From that moment on, Lino uses the beauty pageant contestant in every sense of the word, as a smuggler, a decoy, a courier, a whore. Daniel Hernandez, writing in a blog for the LA Times, called watching "Miss Bala" an exercise in helplessness and, ultimately, hopelessness.

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.

CARLOS GOMEZ INIESTA: I think that the film portrays that, if you are a victim of these guys, it's almost impossible that anybody can help you. That's the final message for me. So it's really hard to see my country like that.

BEAUBIEN: 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.

INIESTA: They are not the lords. They are not the king of (foreign language spoken). They are like normal people, like, really, workers.

BEAUBIEN: Other films have taken very different approaches to the subject. Many think 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.

NARANJO: I had no intention of giving hope in the film. I think it has to be a portrayal of the times we're 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.

BEAUBIEN: "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.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.

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