MISS BALA directed by Gerardo Naranjo, written by Naranjo and Mauricio Katz, with Stephanie Sigman and Noe Hernandez. A Mongrel Media release. 113 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (February 3). For venues and times, see Movies.
Director Gerardo Naranjo is fed up with glamorized portrayals of drug dealers, particularly Latin American crime lords sporting gold chains and surrounded by beautiful women, like Al Pacino's Scarface.
"I felt it was very important to change that and show these guys as pathetic," says Naranjo.
Naranjo certainly flips the archetype in his film Miss Bala. Lino (Noe Hernandez), the ugly cartel gangster at its centre, walks with a limp and lurks like a troll. If he gets laid, it's by force, not charisma.
At the Toronto Film Festival, Naranjo is curled up on a couch in a hotel room, with his star, statuesque beauty Stephanie Sigman, nearby. The two of them speak candidly about the panic that's gripped Mexico as a result of drug wars. According to the New York Times, cartel violence has claimed more than 50,000 lives since 2006.
"Two years ago, I heard some stories involving the friend of a friend," says Sigman. "Now it's getting closer."
She plays the title character, a local girl whose beauty queen aspirations are realized after she falls under Lino's thumb. He gets her into pageants, while she helps him move product. The story was inspired by a newspaper photo - the mug shot of a beauty queen arrested with mob members.
"This picture gave me the perfect perspective of a normal citizen facing crime," Naranjo explains. "What's this pageant girl, which is the stupidest and most superficial job, doing with the guy who has the most cruel, inhuman job in Mexico?"
For Naranjo, the photo illuminated the way drug violence is crippling his country.
"We are not just victims," says the director. "We are partners in this crime. We allow ourselves to do little crimes: throwing trash in the street, not paying taxes. We don't accept that we have been nurturing a culture of not respecting the law."
Naranjo argues that Mexico's submissive culture has led to a situation that is now completely out of control, where helplessness and fear are the prevailing emotions. He hoped to capture that mood in his surrealistic film, which paints a nightmarish picture of criminal violence creeping up on characters from anywhere.
In his Mexico, black trucks with tinted windows lurk everywhere.
"Inside can be a politician," says Naranjo, "or a criminal who will kidnap you or a cop who is supposed to protect you but can also kidnap you. You never know what's going to happen."