Rodrigo Pla, Laura Santullo on Collaboration and ‘A Monster’

Duo’s “A Monster With a Thousand Heads” bows in competition at Morelia.

A Monster With A Thousand Heads,
Courtesy: Memento Films Intl.

Mexican Rodrigo Pla’s “A Monster With A Thousand Heads,” which bowed at Venice, then Morelia before segueing to Los Cabos and now Lima, suggests a new urgency and acerbity in Latin American filmmaking.

Fruit of one of most productive relationships in Latin American cinema – four features, children – it is written by wife Laura Santullo, and based on her same-titled novel. Acquired by Paris-based Memento Films Intl. for world sales, “Monster” is “an intimate thriller,” said Pla. That thriller element kicks in almost from the get-go when a woman visits the cubicled offices of a medical insurance corporation one Friday afternoon in a desperate attempt to persuade it to include in her insurance policy costly drugs her dying husband needs. Given the brush-off, she corners the doctor supervising her case in an underground parking lot, follows him back to his chalet, and pulls a semi-automatic.

Tightly-wound as Sonia works her way up the corporate ladder, at pistol-point, her discoveries are illuminating: her insurer automatically rejects a certain percentage of insurance requests as a policy, a doctor’s wife tells her. Well-received at Venice, where its opened Venice Horizons, “Monster” will be distributed in Mexico by Cine Canibal, said producer Sandino Saravia Vinay. Variety chatted to Pla before “Monster’s” world premiere on the Lido and then attended a packed press conference at Morelia.

In “Monster,” you once more make a thriller…

Pla: “Monster” could be considered a intimist thriller, but focusing on character’ emotions, and how to tell the story: One person confronting a set situation, who refuses to give up on a relative, is in a place she shouldn’t be and is suddenly facing off with a big corporation. We wanted to tell it from that character’s POV. It can be framed as a thriller. It certainly has a lot of its elements, but it wasn’t something we thought about a priori. It just resulted that way.

The film could also be described as neo neo-realist; a character trying to solve a specific problem which talks about a society at large.

Pla: We tried to make a naturalist film that reflected the conflict of an ordinary citizen with a big corporation, its dehumanization. This happens in private medical insurance, but also in other types of corporations where ethics aren’t important, places where decisions are partitioned, where everyone passes the buck. Everybody takes small decisions which frees them from behaving ethically.

“A Monster With a Thousand Heads” was made as disgruntled masses poured onto the streets across Latin America to protest against multiple authorities’ abuse of power. Did that influence the film?

Pla: That protest may be implicit. When we structured the ideas in the film, we did so in a context. For me, states should regulate the private sector. When we experience realities like Mexico’s, where the absence of the state is felt across the board, a certain skepticism is natural. But “Monster” is not a thesis-film. It might suggest ideas, interpretations, but it is a film that follows a few characters, tells a specific story, looks at the human condition, at life itself. Sonia is not even statistically representative of Mexico: Only 5%-10% there have medical insurance.

In “Monster,” scene after scene which first seem neutrally observed are revealed to be testimonies of one of the witnesses in a future court case brought against Sonia….

Pla: The film uses the same narrative as the novel. It helps to balance the story. If we told the story just from Sonia’s POV, the audience would immediately feel an empathy with her. The multiplicity of POVs helps to create a balance.

Was there anything in the novel which you had to leave out of the film. Also, I believe that you co-directed parts of “Monster”?

Santullo: We thought about making a film from the beginning, but the screenplay proved challenging. We had the possibility of first creating a novel to establish what drives the characters and to structure the plot. We knew that Sonia confronts a corporation, but establishing it’s a medical corporation made the story far more urgent. When we came to the screenplay, our attitude was that screenplays are alive, change during the process [of making a film], with the entry of actors, the cinematographer, the costume designer. Rodrigo was able to develop the screenplay, I attended some scenes, we were able to pick up on actors’ suggestions, improvisation. Rodrigo wrote screenplays before we worked together. He intervened at the screenplay stage and I tried to be near to some aspects of direction, such as rehearsals.

The film is a thriller but there are elements of black comedy…

Santullo: Black humor. You find that in life. You can be going through terrible moments but the humor is a bet to show what happens in normal life.

In many of your films, there’s a sense of class difference, there are also mothers in extreme situations, Maribel Verdu’s character in “The Zone,” for instance…

Santullo: Although you don’t attempt to show it, one has a point of view on things and it ends up emerging, whether you like it or not. Our films often turn on the limits of the public and the private, the individual confronting the state, and what happens when that individual is defenseless. That comes basically from the country where we live, where we suffer a high level of defenselessness vs. the government, where the government not only does not aid citizens in their problems but rather often helps create those problems. The state of helplessness is one of the motors of what we write. Regarding why we often portray female characters, I think the question is really: Why don’t other people portray them more?