From the first few moments of the movie, the veil of corruption overshadows the unfolding tale of a young woman vying for the crown in a beauty pageant south of the United States border. Her beauty is undeniable, and her goal is logical, but even still, complications ensue giving way to tragedy in the wake of young dreams.
Having competed earlier this year at the Festival de Cannes, Miss Bala by Mexican-native director Gerardo Naranjo, makes it North American premiere at this month’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Inspired by the true story of a beauty pageant contestant who found herself tightly involved with a Mexican cartel.
“The idea came from this story where a girl just showed up and was crowned the winner, she didn’t even compete, didn’t even put on a bikini and walk,” says Naranjo, alluding to the clear tie between the win and the girls relations with a Mexican gang.
Model-turned-actress Stephanie Sigman plays the fated beauty of Naranjo’s fourth film. A tall, lissome girl from the ghetto of Tijuana, the story follows Laura and her best friend as they find themselves at the center of failed plans, stranded in a gangland disco, submerged in a bloodbath after a sudden shoot out.
Like most anointed films from the feral country of Mexico, the film is produced by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna’s Canana Films. “I’ve known Bernal and Luna a long time, they are the biggest stars in Mexico, they really don’t have to do this, but they take the problem and they go and produce,” praises Naranjo, noting the duo have produced the bulk of internationally successful films out of the region. “I respect them, and they are also a pain in the ass because they are very socially conscious,” the director jokes. “They were completely concerned about what I was doing, saying ‘you are going to talk bad about Mexico outside of Mexico; people will think you are attacking your own country.’ It’s true, but at the same time I believe the movie is really sad, and I hope it will be noticed.”
What the film discusses, beyond the literal plot of the beauty pageant, is the omniscient presence of the drug cartel and the crime that engulfs all who entangle themselves with it. “I really wanted to talk about the violence; I felt it was my duty as a Mexican,” affirms Naranjo. “I wanted to put my sensibility into it. They are very primitive people, ignorant, full of anger. I see [the film] as an alternative way of looking at this event,” An important fact to the director, who set out to direct a feature that explored the current image of crime in Mexico and how this is perceived outside of Mexico. He explains: “I think the whole idea of the gold chains and the girls around is wrong. In actuality the life of a criminal is really short, they escalate and get killed very soon, it’s not as the media represent it. Since that is happening now, obviously they are role models for kids. Dying young and rich is cool.” This popular image of the supposed prototypical Mexican cartel members is, according to Naranjo, a stereotype locals see through.
“The biggest movie in Mexico right now is about these drug dealers whose brother is caught in Iraq, so these drug dealers go and save him, like Saving Private Ryan. So it’s a comical thing. It’s called Saving Private Perez and it’s ridiculous. It’s like Scary Movie you know, we can see the comedy in it,” Naranjo muses as lightly as he can, given the heavy subject. “The image of the drug dealer [in Mexico] is something that is perceived differently than it is in the rest of the world. We know the misconceptions, it is part of our culture now.”
Boasting a vivid display of raw and enticing cinematography, Miss Bala, like a good suspense film, contains a discovery of space, light, movement, and a plot development in each shot, even if just a subtle hint of a reveal. These elements combined are the sign of a mature director.
Before we end out interview and Naranjo continues on his press junket promoting the film, of which 20th Century Fox has already picked up distribution rights to, he finishes our discussion with a segue into the importance of Cannes and the positive affect it has on film’s like his. He also offers his thoughts on this year’s Cannes picks, films premiering alongside him, and at that particular moment in time ultimately competing with his. Although, he was clear his favourite was one completing for the grand award at Cannes, the Palme d’Or.
“I actually arrived early to see Sleeping Beauty, that was my first mission. It is really good, very twisted,” says the director before ending our conversation with a final note on the general state of film. “There are many movies that I think that I’ve already seen without seeing. That one has many surprises. That’s what film should be.”
According to this standard, Miss Bala ,then, is exactly what a film should be.