Depending on whom you ask, Miss Bala is either a slam-bam crime thriller or a cry of social outrage. Maybe it's both. Centered on a young beauty-pageant hopeful who becomes an unwilling pawn in the Tijuana drug trade, the Mexican drama has inspired everything from strong gut reactions to pointed political readings since its premiere at Cannes last May. Even the film's detractors can't seem to agree on what kind of movie, exactly, they're decrying.
Don't expect the film's helmsman, Gerardo Naranjo, to categorize it. "I didn't want to do the normal issue movie, like Hotel Rwanda," says the writer-director. "And I didn't want to make Transformers."
It's October of last year, two days after Miss Bala's local premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival. Sitting at a table in the festival offices, Naranjo seems distracted. He doodles incessantly on a scrap of paper and frequently breaks eye contact to toy with his cell phone. Perhaps he's feeling the fatigue of a day of interviews—or the burnout of months spent on the global festival circuit.
"It's much harder for me to understand what this movie is," Naranjo says. "Because it's created a lot of noise around it." A box-office hit in its home country, Miss Bala has garnered simultaneous acclaim and scorn. Much of the latter comes from Mexican moviegoers who see it as a betrayal. "We're talking bad about our country, which is about the worst thing you can do," the director says.
Loosely inspired by a torn-from-the-headlines true story, Miss Bala was conceived as a corrective to more sensational portraits of gang culture—the kind that glamorize drug dealers as antiheroes. "They all justify the act of killing," says Naranjo. "It's always the story of a poor guy. He's disowned, he has leukemia, he doesn't have medicine, so he becomes a drug dealer so he can pay for it. It's always a justification. So I thought what if we do a movie presented from the point of view of the victim?"
The victim, in this case, is Laura, a lanky inner-city beauty played by newcomer Stephanie Sigman. Snatched up by the ruling drug cartel after witnessing a gangland massacre, she's forced into servitude—driving a getaway car one day, smuggling drugs the next. What keeps this gauntlet of suffering from becoming too exploitative is the naturalistic manner in which it's filmed, as well as the commitment of Naranjo's leading lady. Having spotted her in a shampoo commercial, the filmmaker cast Sigman for both her striking good looks and her willingness to shoulder the physical and emotional demands of the role.
"[She had to have] the ability to endure punishment, just to be very strong and have the allure of dignity through the process," says Naranjo, who claims to have exaggerated the horrors that would be inflicted upon the character to test the actress's interest in the part. When Sigman proved up to the challenge, Naranjo began working with her on internalizing her fear and hysteria. "I told her, 'The moment you start crying, the audience will let you go,'" he recalls.
Naranjo's previous efforts—the dual-narrative patchwork Drama/Mex, the New Wave–inflected I'm Gonna Explode—were smaller endeavors. Like Terri, the latest film from Naranjo's AFI classmate Azazel Jacobs, Miss Bala feels like a step forward: a quasi-mainstream genre movie that boasts crossover appeal without sacrificing the independent spirit of its creator. It's also Naranjo's first attempt at the discipline of action filmmaking. One bravura sequence, in which our heroine dodges bullets and flying glass during a shoot-out, unfolds in a single virtuoso shot.
"It was a nightmare!" Naranjo recalls of that set piece. "And it took almost all of the budget." Shooting the scene in one take was a product of necessity, as the director couldn't afford to restage the gunfight multiple times. The planning took three months. "You think it's going to be this controlled thing," he continues. "But when the gunshots start, they're so loud! I think your mind goes blank. For me, the hardest thing was just to keep directing while all this noise was happening. I was completely frightened by it."
The horrors eventually become so extreme that Miss Bala gains a measure of black-comic energy, epitomized by a bitterly ironic beauty-pageant centerpiece. Naranjo accepts this reading of the film—just don't use the "m" word. "Melodrama is a virus," he says. "I didn't want it coming in. So I'm glad we controlled that."
Miss Bala is now playing at Century 12 Evanston/CinéArts 6. [node:15097917 link=Read our review here.;]