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Rodrigo Sorogoyen of ‘May God Save Us’ on Friendship, Violence, Being Human

Director talks about his San Sebastian competition player, which world premieres today at the festival

Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

Few competition films entered San Sebastian with the buzz of Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s “May God Save Us,” a grueling, grimy, melancholic thriller about men who cannot control their actions. The movie is a serial-killer procedural which unspools in a hot Madrid overrun by the pilgrims because of a visit by the pope.

Sorogoyen turned heads with his crowdfunded “Stockholm,” about a one-night stand between a girl on the edge of a nervous breakdown and a guy who just wants to have sex and leave. Sorogoyen continues that study of male psychology in “Que Dios Nos Perdone” (“May God Save Us”), but with a big step up in scale, budget and producing team. One backer, Tornasol, won an Academy Award for “The Secret in Their Eyes,” while another, Atresmedia Cine, produced movies by Woody Allen.

“May God Save Us” is multi-layered in its themes of friendship, violence and institutionalized dereliction of duty, and is set in a dilapidated central Madrid where the old and infirm can’t afford Philippine live-in carers. The movie is laced with the quirks and foibles of Spain and its people. Sorogoyen talked to Variety about the film.

One central question about “May God Save Us” is what is its driving force, and that, I think, is only really defined in the ultimate shot of the film. This is a story of the across-the-tracks friendship between Velarde and Alamo, who are diametrically opposed in almost everything: social circumstance, character and, one suspects, politics.  

Sorogoyen: “The theme of friendship in the film was really secondary until we started shooting. Obviously we really liked the relationship between them and the journey they make from complete disinterest to absolute respect.

“But it was only once we started work with the actors (and thanks to their work) that the film eventually became the story of two people who felt alone and found, in the least likely person, a partner to see themselves reflected in, to gain support, respect, to learn from, and to love, and why not? These are things that everyone needs.”

This is also a film, however, about men who can’t control their bodies, and women who are victims. The film questions to what extent Velarde and Alamo are so different from the killer. Some of the men’s violence can be put down to circumstance, career frustration, but the violence appears to run deeper, being the result of both nature and nurture.

Sorogoyen: “First and foremost, we wanted to talk about violence — violence within human beings but also the violence of modern societies, and cities where violent behaviors occur. It was our intention to do just that: think of a three-way relationship between characters, who are different and complementary. It’s curious — a psychiatrist friend told us that we had created three psychopaths who related to violence in a very different but very recognizable way.”

The film adopts a sometimes lacerating take on Madrid’s police force: one cop – Alonso’s – astonishing dereliction of duty by not reporting a rape; Sancho, the homicide squad boss’ attempt to cover up the crimes since he didn’t want news of a serial killer raping and killing old ladies to get out during the pope’s visit to Madrid. Yet Alonso rallies round and finally helps Velarde and Alamo try to save the case. The vision of the police is sometimes damning, but not without nuance.

Sorogoyen: “When we spoke with police to gather information they made it clear to us that ‘being police’ is like any other job. They talk about the same things, and behave the same as any other government official, doctors or lawyers. We took that statement as a mantra, and we created an office and a universe of characters that could be in an office in any other profession. Thus Sancho, the boss, could behave as you suggest; another cop could be negligent, though he tries to make up for that. That makes the vision of these characters and the film natural, realistic, making the confrontation with violence that appears throughout the film that much more shocking.”

The film is filmed in widescreen and using an often handheld camera.  The net effect is to include a lot of the clutter of office: cables, old computers, mildewed walls, file stacks, dingy basements. There is a sense of chaos and the absolute impossibility of betterment in interior design….Could you talk about the film’s cinematography?

Sorogoyen: “We wanted to portray the chaos of a ‘normal’ office. We believed, as I explained earlier, that it linked better to the more ‘movie’ style second part of the film. Because of this, in terms of visual style we split the film in two. The first 65 minutes, everything is handheld and done with open optics. We were looking for the ugliness and closeness between human beings — a more documentary style, if you will. The second part, when the story darkens (there is an increasing violence and the characters begin to feel more lost), we used a steady-cam, harmonious movements, zooms….We wanted to be elegant, more aesthetic, and to create a discomfort in the spectator because he would like what he was seeing (because of its elegance) but be discomfited by the squalor and violence.”

The film comes in at two hours on the dot. One senses that you needed such a length to make the audience sense just how grueling this case is and its toll on the homicide cops private lives. Would you agree? 

Sorogoyen: “It is indeed a long movie, but I think it has good pacing and is not at all boring. The length helps tell everything we felt necessary to explain the crime story well and to show the personal lives of the characters. We believe that without that balance the film would be a movie more than a story about these police. We think that if the film is any way special it’s because it talks about human beings.”

The mise-en-scene sometimes recalls the ’50s and ’60s Madrid-set movies of Fernando Fernan-Gomez and Luis Berlanga, but transferred to a procedural….Did you have any influences, which you could mention?

Sorogoyen: “Thank you! Obviously for me those are movies I love, and that attention to cultural detail and naturalism is where we wanted to focus.

“Cinematographer Alex Paul and I also referenced films that we love such as ‘Gomorrah,’ ‘A Prophet,’ ‘Zodiac’ and ‘Seven,’ or the police films of ’70s America like ‘French Connection,’ ‘Serpico’ and ‘Dog Day Afternoon.'”