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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Every year the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film is chosen from movies nominated by their home countries, one submission per country. This year's Mexican submission is "Miss Bala," a story set amidst Mexico's drug war. "Miss Bala" is opening in American theaters this week and our critic-at-large John Powers says that it grippingly captures a society shot through with fear.

JOHN POWERS: If you read the headlines, you know that the Mexican government is engaged in a long, deadly battle against the country's astonishingly powerful drug dealers, known as narcotraficantes, or simply narcos. Hardly a day goes by without news of another shootout or massacre. Nearly 50,000 people have died in the current five-year-old drug war, the majority of them innocent citizens.

Naturally, such a reality has a painful effect on the psyches of ordinary people forced to live amidst the madness. And this is the subject of the remarkable new movie "Miss Bala," written and directed by the brilliant young Mexican filmmaker Gerardo Naranjo. Focusing on the absurd travails of one young woman, this searing, exaggerated, sometimes weirdly funny film plays like a cross between Franz Kafka and "No Country for Old Men."

Set in and around Tijuana, in the northern Mexican state of Baja, "Miss Bala" tells the story of Laura Guerrero, played by Stephanie Sigman, a pretty, innocent 23-year-old whose family runs a clothes stall. Laura has big dreams, and to make them come true, she enters the Miss Bala beauty pageant. So far, so good.

But after entering, she follows her friend Suzu to a disco, and there things go terribly wrong. Narcos burst in and start gunning people down. Laura escapes, just barely. But when she tries to find out what happened to Suzu, she makes a fateful mistake. She asks the help of a policeman. Before she knows it, she's in the hands of Lino Valdez, a dangerously capricious drug boss played by Noe Hernandez.

Laura desperately wants to get away, but there's nowhere safe to go. And soon Lino uses her to perform tasks she doesn't want to do for men whose intentions she rarely understands. All she knows is that, wherever she turns up, people get killed. Laura goes from hoping to be Miss Bala to becoming Miss Bala, which is Spanish for bullet.

Now, there are a lot of bullets in "Miss Bala", but part of what makes the film so masterful is its striking way of portraying violence. You see, most violent movie scenes are shot and edited to make the killing and mayhem as exciting as possible. The camera, we might say, encourages us to identify with the violence, either by making it seem cool or by focusing on a hero whose own violence we're urged to cheer on.

Naranjo does just the opposite. While his movie is very exciting - there are three riveting set-pieces - he keeps us focused on the point-of-view of Laura, who's a victim. Using superbly orchestrated long takes, he either shows us what Laura's seeing, or more often, simply focuses on her face as murderous events unfold around her. The soul of the film is her fear.

In Laura's face we see the terror and dread that have become normal in a Mexico where the drug trade touches everyone and everything - even a goofy Miss Bala contest. When I first saw "Miss Bala," I kept thinking that Laura was too passive, and that Sigman needed to show more fire in her performance. Watching it again, I realized that I'd been expecting her to be the heroine of a Hollywood movie.

But Laura's not. She's a not-rich young woman living in a place where, if you're a not-rich young woman in trouble, there's nowhere to go and no one to trust. You never know who that cop is really working for, or whether that famous general in charge of fighting a cartel may himself be one of its bosses.

Pointedly over the top, "Miss Bala" offers a vision of Mexico that must surely have the national tourist board clutching its collective head in dismay. After all, just as there was more to life in Miami than you saw in the old Al Pacino movie "Scarface," there is obviously far more to this country of 120 million people than drug dealers, corrupt officials and their victims.

Yet the fact that Naranjo's movie is his country's official Oscar nominee suggests that, while it may not tell the whole story of Mexican life, it clearly captures a truth nobody can deny. Early on, when Laura tells her father that she's going to enter the Miss Bala contest, he urges her not to. He says she could wind up in trouble, making it clear that it's better to keep your head down.

It sounds like good advice, but the painful truth is that this good advice wouldn't have helped Laura at all. In the Mexico of "Miss Bala" you can never get your head down far enough.

GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. You can see the trailer for "Miss Bala" on our website freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts of our show.

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