With a title that translates as the punning "Miss Bullet," the Mexican film "Miss Bala" is based in part on the real-life story of a beauty pageant winner who was arrested alongside a drug gang and paraded before the media amid accusations of corruption behind her crown.
It aims to not only be a provocative, thoughtful action film for the art house, looking at the overwhelming problems of the drug-trafficking epidemic in Mexico, but "Miss Bala" also marks an ambitiously bold step forward for director Gerardo Naranjo.
The film, which opens in Los Angeles on Jan. 20 and is Mexico's submission for the foreign-language film Academy Award, has been much talked about ever since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and throughout its run at top festivals in Toronto, New York and Los Angeles.
When it opened in Mexico in September, more than one article appeared asking whether this was even a subject to be talking about, if this is the image Mexico should be showing the world.
"I think that we all felt it was a big deal that we got to talk about it," said Naranjo, who co-wrote the script with Mauricio Katz. "If we avoid making conclusions, giving big lessons, making big speeches, if we avoid all the things that bad movies do and we just try to be as honest as we can with our emotions, I think we can do it in a good way, and I think we have the right to express ourselves."
The story follows a young woman named Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) who more or less tags along with a friend to sign up for a beauty pageant tryout. This sets her on a course that will find her in the crossfire of numerous shootouts, drafted as a courier for a drug lord (played by Noe Hernandez), raped, crowned a pageant queen, arrested and trapped within a complex matrix of deception and corruption from which there seems to be no escape.
Naranjo, 41, is among a recent wave of vibrant filmmakers from Mexico, including Carlos Reygadas, Fernando Eimbcke and others, making a splash on the international festival circuit. After studying at the American Film Institute, Naranjo made two features, "Drama/Mex" (2006) and "I'm Gonna Explode" (2008).
Before completing his entry for the 2010 omnibus film "Revolución," Naranjo found himself at a creative crossroads. With that short and "Miss Bala," he says he's artistically refreshed, connected at last to a world outside his own experience.
"I was at a dead end in many ways," Naranjo said. "I was not believing that much in putting my life, my experiences, into film. The films I used to do were the way I felt or things I had experienced, and I was pretty tired of that. I felt I had grown up, and I had to change my filmmaking."
Sigman was among the first of some 5,000 actresses Naranjo saw for the crucial lead part, and he kept returning to her. All along, Naranjo told Sigman she looked like the woman on whom the story is loosely based, model and actress Laura Zúñiga, although Sigman herself never saw the resemblance.
Oddly enough, during the extended process of landing the role, Sigman once found herself sitting in an unrelated casting session for a commercial with Zúñiga.
"I recognized her and the casting guy said, 'You two seem like sisters,'" recalled Sigman, sitting recently with Naranjo in a small bungalow in Los Angeles that is the local office for Canana, the production company run by Pablo Cruz, Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, which has been involved in all three of Naranjo's features.
"The only thing I said to her is, 'Are you Laura?' and she said yes," Sigman continued. "I said, 'Some people told me we look alike,' and she told me she didn't think so, and that's it. I never spoke to her more because I didn't feel like I needed to."
Naranjo filmed "Miss Bala" using long, fluid takes, and he points out that there are only 130 cuts in the entire movie. He is especially proud of a scene shot in the back of a truck that plays out as a slow 360-degree pan of Laura and the other survivors of a loud gun battle. (Though the film is set and was partly shot in the border town of Tijuana, because of safety concerns all scenes with guns were filmed in the central state of Aguascalientes.)
In its best moments, such as that long shootout or a scene in which a duplicitous cop delivers Laura back to her captors, the film's style and its larger themes unite in a way that is both sure-handed and open-ended.
"I remember the first screening in Cannes, someone from the festival said that the scene where she goes to the policeman, with the long traveling shot in the car, was one of the best scenes in the film," Naranjo said. "Then we're showing the film in Mexico and the same scene, in the Q&As, people more than once said, 'You made a big mistake, nobody in Mexico would go to the police for help.'"
Sigman said that she only really recognized her character as a metaphoric stand-in for Mexico once the finished film began screening for audiences, but Naranjo always held sight of the story's larger implications.
"I think she is also a metaphor that the people of Mexico are frozen out of fear," Naranjo said. "People ask, 'Why doesn't she shoot the guy?' and I don't think that's what a normal person would do. And I don't think we should even think like that. We don't have to defend ourselves with guns. Our weapon is being together, being a society."