Reacting to the impotence and frustration that comes when the mechanics of the world work to protect the powerful, a victim becomes a villain for a noble cause in Uruguayan director Rodrigo Plá’s A Monster With a Thousand Heads.

When all legal options are ineffective, a violent outburst becomes the sole hope for a woman, Sonia Bonet (Jana Raluy), to save her husband’s life, in the face of nightmarish bureaucratic traps to his healthcare. When the insurance company refuses to answer her plea, she grows willing to risk her freedom, and the lives of others, to right the wrong. This premise opens the door to a slew of questionable moral choices that blur as the viewer attempts to determine what is criminal and what is justified.

By observing each tensely charged occurrence from the point of view of a multitude of characters, Plá reaches for objectivity within the perpetual subjectivity of film. Editing every sequence to explore all parties’ perspectives, and using voiceover as a clever revelatory device, the director creates an audiovisual dynamic precisely tailored for this dilemma. Tightly conceived with a running time of just 75 minutes, the film is innovative by design—a captivating effort to confront expectations with the unpredictability of the human experience.

We asked Plá and writer Laura Santullo (who also wrote the novel on which the screenplay is based) to discuss their cinematic exploration of the fragmentation of responsibility. Their answers, emailed to MovieMaker in Spanish, have been translated into English.

Jana Raluy in A Monster With a Thousand Heads

Jana Raluy in A Monster With a Thousand Heads

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Rodrigo, tell me about the way in which you interpreted Laura’s screenplay. Did the particular structure and all the singular elements that comprise it emanate directly from that material? How of much of this came from your vision as a director?

Rodrigo Plá (RP): Before we worked on the screenplay, Laura had written a novel to find not just the story she wanted to tell, but also the motivations that made the characters act. Thus this choral structure, in which the perspective slides from one character to another, and where the protagonist isn’t always the center of attention, is inherited from the novel. These are elements that she brought to the screenplay.

The great challenge in creative terms was to search for the cinematic form of this concept. In the book, each character exposes his or her motivations in the first person and tells us about the situation he or she lived through. The question was how to convey a similar idea on screen, without relying on explanations or making the blocking a representation of each character’s subjectivity. Is each character’s subjectivity what they see—his or her point of view—or is it, rather, how they react and add to the different situations and stimuli that they are faced with throughout the film? Answering this question was a process of experimentation and learning—in a radical manner, as the filming went on—how to stay with the supporting character who had to narrate that fragment of the story, despite knowing we were often marginalizing our leads.

Sebastián Aguirre, Noé Hernández and Emilio Echevarría in A Monster With a Thousand Heads

Sebastián Aguirre, Noé Hernández and Emilio Echevarría in A Monster With a Thousand Heads

MM: How did the moral complexity of the story influence your aesthetic decisions in terms of its cinematography and visual language? It’s a dark and tense film from the beginning, which makes it effectively raw.

Rodrigo Plá and Laura Santullo (RP and LS): Many of the aesthetic decisions were made precisely in order to achieve this moral complexity you mention. We felt that if we followed this woman’s desperate journey exclusively from her gaze, her pain and her ethics, we would run the risk of producing absolute empathy and being uncritical toward her character, when some of her decisions were in fact very questionable. We believed that by observing what took place from a multiplicity of perspectives, the space for ethical discussion would expand on its own. Sonia Bonet is a victim, but occasionally she also turns out to be a perpetrator. It’s true that her rights have been violently truncated, but at the same time she provokes violence along the way. And this can be seen precisely because we have different perspectives of what is happening on screen; in the eyes of those who have been kidnapped, she doesn’t look innocent.

MM: Did you use a particular lens or technical tool to obtain your desired stylistic vision?

RP and LS: We used some old lomo lenses—anamorphic—which have the quality of making certain parts within the frame out of focus. This helped us highlight the idea that what we see is a recreation of what took place, made by each one of the characters who has to narrate a fragment of the story. We don’t see what really happened, but what the memory of each of them reconstructs. The imperfect and partial image that these lenses generate helped us emphasize the subjective—and thus distorted—perception of their gazes.

MM: The film resembles the sensibilities of arthouse, European films more than it does those of commercial Mexican cinema. Why did you feel these qualities were right for the project?

RP: I don’t remember ever thinking in those terms while working. I want to say the selection of style and specific form for the film came from another place. The conversation with the entire creative team revolved around this attempt to convey a sensation of ethical ambiguity, to tell the story based on the reconstruction of the characters’ memories and to find a way to narrate the subjectivity. It’s not a matter of what’s correct and what’s incorrect, because surely there would be other ways to tell that story. But we felt that the form should obey the content, and the idea that each person is defined by others’ perceptions was part of this content.

MM: The use of voiceover is rather peculiar in A Monster. We hear voices that come from a different time and not from what we are witnessing on screen, which seems like you are revealing information about what’s coming. However, this never interferes with the unexpected revelations and twists in the story. Can you talk about your decision to include this narrative device?

RP and LS: That voiceover is a means to synthesize two events of the story in the frame at the same time. It’s the superimposing of two dramatic layers, which, by coexisting in the same fragment of the film, create contradictions, doubts and expectations. We were careful to not break the intrigue, to reveal Sonia’s future only partially. What’s the truth and what’s a lie from what the characters say—that’s up to the viewer’s interpretation.

MM: By the same token, the editing—the way in which you allow us to move through time and focus on specific elements in the past—is one of the most fascinating aspects of the film. Why use this editing style, which gives us the opportunity to observe the secondary characters and their decisions closely?

RP and LS: The change in perspective—the interchanging protagonist role from one character to another—is meant to modulate the narration. We believed that only through the multiplicity of points of view could we have an idea that was at all objective about what occurred. Because each event that we register in life necessarily goes through the filter of our subjectivity, no single individual can capture reality in its entirety. The idea that surrounds the movie is that only the variety of viewpoints allows us to have a certain notion about what effectively took place. The sound, the editing, the framing, they all seek to reinforce this premise.

MM: Your lead actress, Jana Raluy, delivers an impressive performance. There is no glamor or vanity. She is simply a desperate woman whose motivation is honest but whose path is questionable, which creates a compelling conflict. Tell me about creating this character.

RP and LS: Jana is an actress with an ample range of emotions and resources. The work was intense because she plays a character that, for the most part, carries the film, or at least is the common thread of it. Ethical contradictions are present the entire time in her character—everything from her physical movements (it was important for this woman to seem clumsy when grabbing the gun, to highlight that she is not someone that’s used to handling it) to her guilt and emotional turmoil as she enters a violent spiral from which she can’t escape. Working on ambiguity and the idea of character flaws—showing a woman with a profound love toward her family while at the same time straying from the image of a heroine—were, in a sense, the North on our compass.

Raluy and Veronica Falcón in A Monster With a Thousand Heads

Raluy and Veronica Falcón in A Monster With a Thousand Heads

MM: There are also numerous actors in the film, who despite having small roles, help construct this reality. What was the process of building this story on set with an extensive cast?

RP: The complexity lay in the fact that for several minutes each character is the protagonist of the film. That’s why there was an exhaustive search for the cast, and I believe we found a great cast. We worked doing a lot of improvisation, and often based the performances more on fragments from Laura’s novel than on the actual screenplay. This allowed us to enrich the scenes and generate small and varied nuances for each character. Dramatic blocking is a fundamental part of my job—finding organic mobility within the scene and, from those movements, creating profundity. Because of the film’s characteristics, occasionally some of the characters are left out of frame, or are only seen partially; this could be a problem for some actors, but I was lucky to work with a solid and talented team that granted me their trust.

MM: Is there a place in Latin American cinema for films like A Monster with A Thousand Heads? How difficult is it to finance a film that might not have the same prospects as more popular cinema, but which is still important thematically and artistically?

RP and LS: We were actually very lucky when seeking financing. We were able to produce it within a decent timeframe in terms of the Mexican industry. The difficulty in the competition with other narratives that are easier to digest, as you mentioned, comes later at the box office. But that’s due to the way in which film distribution is organized in our country. Competition turns into a ruthless fight for exhibition spaces, where we don’t arrive under the same conditions, neither in terms of publicity nor in terms of financing. We still need legislation that ensures a certain equality for directors when competing for distribution.

MM: The film touches on several social justice themes without lecturing or trying to persuade the audience to have a specific opinion. Was it important for you to tackle these ideas in a subtle way through the plot?

RP and LS: Naturally. Every film has an ideology, whether it’s purposeful or not. But movies shouldn’t be discourses. We believe that one has to tell a good story, shine light on the complexity of the human experience, and open up a space to think about the world. It’s not the job of a work of art to present messages.

MM: Are bureaucracy, financial institutions, or organized crime monsters because they have endless heads, like the Hydra from Greek mythology?

RP and LS: The construction of the film is sort of a journey, a spiral of violence that grows and makes its way inside the innards of the monster. We were interested in showing the functioning of corporations, the fragmentation of responsibility, the distance between those who make decisions and the subject who ultimately suffers the consequences.

The title is taken from a passage of Laura’s novel that says: “She had understood that Alta Salud was a monster with a thousand heads and without a brain; inside of it, no one thought about the patients, no one thought about their health, not about their life nor their health. In reality, they weren’t thinking about the patients at all.” MM

A Monster With a Thousand Heads opened in theaters Friday, May 20, 2016, courtesy of Music Box Films.