'A Monster with a Thousand Heads' ('Un monstruo de mil cabezas'): Venice Review

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
A compact and lean mix of thriller, drama and socio-political commentary.

In the latest film from Uruguay-born Mexican director Rodrigo Pla ('The Zone'), a woman with a terminally ill husband literally tries to fight their corrupt insurance company.

A woman decides to take the fate of her terminally ill husband into her own hands in A Monster with a Thousand Heads (Un monstruo de mil cabezas), the fourth feature from Uruguay-born, Mexico-based director Rodrigo Pla. Based on a novel by the filmmaker’s regular screenwriter, Laura Santullo, this is a lean and efficient mix of thriller, drama and socio-political commentary about a woman who starts to literally wave a gun in the face of the people working for her health-insurance company, who refuse to cover an urgent cancer treatment for her dying spouse. Shot through with dark irony and containing several genre elements that should make it easier to market than the theme might suggest, this Venice Horizons opening film should follow in the footsteps of Pla’s most widely screened feature, The Zone, which won the Best First Feature gong at Venice back in 2007. 

Sonia Bonet (Jana Raluy) isn’t the kind of woman who takes no for an answer. When her ill husband falls out of bed because of the pain, she wants to move up a monthly doctor’s visit so he can start an expensive treatment that's theoretically covered by her insurance, but which they have so far been refused. But for that, she needs to talk to someone who'll move her appointment. As elsewhere in the film, some wry humor seeps in, as Pla dryly illustrates the almost entirely automated way in which big companies deal with calls nowadays.

Since it’s urgent, Sonia instead shows up at the office of the (fictional) Alta Salud company — an inhospitable space that’s all sharp angles, ugly, rock-hard concrete and semi-transparent glass. But there too she’s kept waiting and is treated with total indifference by the receptionists, so when she finally sees the doctor (Hugo Albores) she needs to speak to leave the office — it’s early Friday afternoon — she jumps into a cab and follows him home. Her teenage son, Dario (Sebastian Aguirre Boeda), who’s accompanying her, comes along for the ride, though he can’t quite believe his mother is doing this since clearly the doctor doesn't want to speak to them.

Things go from bad to worse when, at the doctor's luxurious home, Sonia pulls a gun out of her purse in reaction to his very firm attempt to throw them out so can finally go and play tennis, postponing until Monday the irritation of dealing with with the case of her dying husband. From that moment on, all bets are off, resulting in a long journey over the course of one day and night that involves people, including the numbers one and two of Alta Salud (Emilio Echeverria and Daniel Gimenez Cacho, respectively), who are memorably surprised and then cornered in a sauna, and a notary (Ilya Cazes) and shareholder (Veronica Falcon) who are called upon in the middle of the night to handle the necessary paperwork. If not quite the thousand heads of the title, this dense, 75-minute feature crucially does manage to suggest that Alta Salud is a large, essentially faceless company of which Sonia is but one of thousands of clients.

Interestingly, Pla and Santullo refrain from turning the dying father into an excuse for melodrama (he's barely in the movie and almost feels like an excuse) and neither do they stick very closely to the protagonist’s single-minded point-of-view. So Sonia can be seen as a righteous and fed-up figure who fights the good fight — though perhaps in a bad, desperate way — against a very corrupt system. Instead of a focused character study, the film prefers a wider view of those surrounding her and the system they represent, with supporting characters at various turns temporarily foregrounded and occasionally heard in voice-over, as they talk about the events during a court case that isn’t glimpsed until the film’s end. This approach helps advance the (not particularly novel, it must be said) notion that the indifference of bottom-rung corporate lackeys and the profit motives of money-hungry CEOs and those higher-up all feed into a corporate culture that, particularly in the case of the healthcare industry, can literally cost human lives.

So there’s a kind of poetic irony in the fact that because of one administrative error, a lot of the people responsible for the impending death of one man find themselves at gunpoint, fearing for their own lives. The film also illustrates the sad and ugly truth that in order to get what you want, sometimes it pays to be violent or at least actively resist following the rules. The way in which Dario’s character blossoms from a shocked onlooker to a maladroit collaborator to a clear proponent of this tactic suggests this beautifully and implicitly says something about how violence can often end up feeling like a necessity in Mexico — the only means to confront and overcome the inefficient status quo.

The sinewy Raluy, a TV actress, displays the right mix of craziness and steamrolling strength to appear dangerous, even though the awkward way she holds a gun clearly indicates she’s a fed-up hausfrau reduced to desperate measures, not a trained killer. Next to her, young Boeda, the lead from slacker arthouse hit Gueros, undergoes the clearest transformation, while the rest of the cast is solid in more two-dimensional supporting roles.

Pla and cinematographer Odei Zabaleta use their widescreen canvas beautifully. They often show Sonia in reflective surfaces to suggest how others are bearing witness to her actions while claustrophobic setups underscore her increasingly restricted position — and her rapidly shrinking options to set things right. 

Production companies: Buenaventura Cine, Fidecine, Rio Negro Producciones

Cast: Jana Raluy, Sebastian Aguirre Boeda, Hugo Albores, Nora Huerta, Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Emilio Echeverria, Ilya Cazes, Noe Hernandez, Veronice Falcon

Director: Rodrigo Pla

Screenplay: Laura Santullo, based on her novel

Producers: Sandino Saravina Vinay, Rodrigo Pla

Director of photography: Odei Zabaleta

Production designers: Barbara Enriquez, Alejandro Garcia

Costume designer: Malena de la Riva

Editor: Miguel Schverdfinger

Music: Jacobo Lieberman, Leonardo Heiblum

Sales: Memento


No rating, 75 minutes