With its premiere in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Miss Bala has been embraced for its unwavering portrayal of criminality in Mexico and the corruption of civic life. A reference to the border city's beauty pageant 'Miss Baja' that young Tijuana woman Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) aspires to win, the film tracks an innocent who becomes entwined in the activities of a gang terrorising northern Mexico. Having inadvertently witnessed a heinous crime, Laura is held hostage by gang leader Lino Valdez (played by Noe Hernandez) and is forced into a world from which there is little hope for escape.
I was prepared for the mixed reaction because we’re a country divided
Miss Bala is a bleak but prescient metaphor for a nation held to ransom yet the director admits many in his home audience view it as betrayal. “I can tell you without fear of being mistaken that [the response in Mexico] was 50-50,” he says over the phone from Los Angeles. “Fifty percent of the people said that I was a traitor, a liar, that the movie sucked, and 50 percent tell me it's a great film that's necessary for social consciousness. I felt a lot of support but also a lot of hate from the people who think we should keep these problems to ourselves. I was prepared for the mixed reaction because we're a country divided. At the same time, it was very confusing — I've never had so much box office success.”
Part of the polarising effect of the film is the way it portrays a criminal world that infiltrates all aspects of society. No one is beyond the gang's reach. For Naranjo, Miss Bala was an opportunity to unapologetically explore these dark realities of Mexico, and together with co-writer Mauricio Katz, he drew major elements of the script from real life.
“We wanted to talk about the smuggling of weapons into Mexico, the death of a DEA agent [at the hands of] drug dealers and the beauty queen phenomena,” he says. “Many of the stories were real but they didn't happen in that [particular] sequence of events. The licence we took was to create a story where they could co-exist. We didn't want it to be a Scarface structure where a criminal is 'born', a good guy is poor and he has to enter crime,” Naranjo insists. “We didn't want to go into the Pulp Fiction arena where the alter ego of the criminal is a sexy guy; he's mysterious, charming and tells good jokes. We wanted to talk about how a person is transformed once criminality invades his life. To me, the most difficult process was to find a way to not preach or idolise the criminal world.”
Miss Bala relies heavily on its two leads and Naranjo acknowledges the risk for Sigman, a non-professional actor, playing her first lead role. “It's not a Hollywood proposal where she learns a lesson that helps her to face life,” he says. “Here is a person who is a victim of circumstances. The only thing she did was to be in the wrong place in a country of machos where women have very few roles in life.”
While Hernandez did have extensive acting experience, Naranjo stresses that was not a factor in casting. “I didn't approach them as actors,” he explains. “My approach was more, 'What would you do or how would you act if this happened?' It was more about trusting their decisions.”
It was a working methodology that would prove productive. The director revised the original script on the basis of these conversations and a six-week rehearsal period that was videotaped.
“I think most of our great discoveries were done when we were shooting the video,” he reflects. “In the video version of the film, instead of guns there are brooms and sticks and the cars are just chairs. That really helped us to find the film and the way we wanted to make it.”
The support of the production company Canana Films, helmed by Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, was also integral to the realisation of Naranjo's vision. “They are very committed guys,” he says of the actor/producers. “It's hard to express because it's too good to be true. We talked about the movie we dreamed of doing. They told me, 'It's very bad news that you want to make a movie about this because obviously we are going to face all the obstacles and we are going to have a hard time but if you choose to make it, let's do it'. They read the script, gave me notes and advice. When we were shooting they visited and they were there when we were editing.”
For many, it's the tension that Naranjo builds over the course of the film that will leave a lasting impression. “It's an interesting bet we made,” the director admits. “I think the tension is built mostly in the viewer's mind. It was very important for us to not show the horrors but to put them in your head so you would recreate them. It's along the same line as trying not to idolise the criminal world. We really didn't want to have horrific images because it's a tactic we see everyday. We wanted to make it more like an enigma. The horror and the crime is something you don't see but you imagine.”
Miss Bala screened as part of the La Mirada Film Festival and opens at Melbourne's Cinema Nova on November 22.