Miss Bala pays homage to Ferrara by casting the character actor James Russo, of the director’s China Girl (1987) and Dangerous Game (1993), in an important cameo as a corrupt DEA man. Russo is only in Bala for a few minutes, but his presence is so volatile and scary that it leaves a lasting impression. Viewers familiar with Ferrara’s work will recognize its timbre at once: for this director, one of the most despairing in movies, human beings are forever tempted by dark forces, whether it’s Catholic guilt (Bad Lieutenant, Mary), greed (King of New York, ‘R Xmas), or hard drugs (The Addiction, The Blackout). As Nicole Brenez argues in her excellent book-length study, this view of humanity informs Ferrara’s depictions of political corruption, which can be overwhelmingly bleak. Indeed, many viewers find his pessimism repulsive (which would explain why none of his films have received a proper US release since the mid-90s), but few would call it disingenuous.
The French filmmaker Olivier Assayas (whose Boarding Gate pays homage to Ferrara's New Rose Hotel) once called Dangerous Game one of the most daring moments in the history of movies. Few films make moviemaking look so ugly, even though Ferrara maintains unshakeable faith in the beauty of movies themselves. In terms of lighting, Ferrara is one of the most precise and painterly of modern filmmakers, and his sense of the beautiful remains evident even in his films’s darkest moments. This carries over to his direction of actors, whose hysterics often convey a search for real catharsis. In the unjust and overlong absence of Ferrara films on Chicago screens, Russo’s commanding cameo in Miss Bala will have to suffice.