In the finest documentary tradition, “Monkeys Like Becky,” Joaquin Jorda and Nuria Villazan’s multiple-award-winning and memorably oddball exploration of the life and work of the medical man who briefly made lobotomies hip, takes an unpromising and daring subject and makes it entirely captivating. The material provides an emotional roller-coaster ride, the humor is anything but black, the historical details are fascinating, and, despite the subject’s raw power, the treatment is a textbook lesson in directorial sensitivity. Such virtues, however, are unlikely to give this disturbing project much life beyond the fest circuit, where it has already shown it has legs.
Constructed around the six-month period during which the helmers lived alongside an engaging group of people on prescribed medication for personality problems, and set largely in the hospital in Catalonia where they live, pic is the loosely told tale of their preparations for a low-key theater production based on the life of Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz. After traveling to London in the ’30s and seeing a vicious monkey (Becky) calmed by having the central lobe of her brain removed, Moniz decided that the technique would work on people, too.
This frame allows for an exploration of his remarkable life. Moniz won a Nobel Prize in 1949 for pioneering work in psychosurgery while also lobotomizing up to 20 patients a year, driving a nail-like instrument through their skulls as part of a drive to empty Portugal’s prisons and hospitals. He died after being shot 18 times by an ex-patient, upon which he uttered the immortal words, “It wasn’t you who shot me, but your illness.”
Moniz’s descendants are interviewed at his house, their stout defense of his methods showing that blood is thicker than brains. One patient who is old enough to have undergone psychosurgery — as indeed has co-helmer Jorda, hence his interest — strikingly describes the experience as “seeing a flash in your head, after which you see the world in a deficient way.” Such techniques have now been replaced by drugs.
Technically, pic is a montage of video interviews, old docus and handheld lensing. Grainy docu footage of lobotomies is, unsurprisingly, stomach-churning. Research is solid, the questions about evolving notions of what the word “psychiatry” means are intelligently debated, and psychologists are brought in with expert ethical and medical opinions.
But what lingers are the personalities of the schizophrenics preparing the play, from the delightfully camp and vital man who plays Moniz’s killer and who is able, like all of them, to laugh at his condition, to the violent-looking skinhead who winds things up by offering an acute and moving insight into the experience of brain damage. By revealing the humanity, wit and resilience of these “monkeys” and contrasting them with the cynical methods historically used by institutions, “Becky” gets across its message — which is to ask who the real monkeys are.