From Mexico, a horrifying tale of health insurance

We open in darkness with pleading groans of pain emanating from what we finally see is a bedroom behind a glass barrier, and then there is a thud. The suffering man has fallen out of bed. His wife and son appear, turn on a light and kneel by his side. The wife Sonia (played by Jana Raluy, a well-known stage and TV actress in her first film role) rests her cheek on his chest, and his tall, slender teenage son, Dario, leans down to kiss him. He is dying of cancer and she is determined to save him.

We next observe her planning her attack—documents spread out on her bed, medical records and the health insurance contract: She must get the medicine that offers a chance of saving him.

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 “A Monster with a Thousand Heads” is a tight (75 minutes), fast moving, sometimes deliberately confusing, moralistic record of a woman determined to save a life. She is up against a powerful network, the corrupt medical-insurance corporation ostensibly devoted to curing the sick but really indifferent, even hostile, to human lives.

She calls the doctor’s office. He is unavailable. She goes to downtown to a huge, modern, glass and steel medical complex. The receptionist says the doctor is not in. Sonia waits two hours, returns only to be told that he has gone home. The camera allows us to spot the back of a blurred, bulky shape down the corridor. Sonia spots him and, with Dario at her side, they run to catch him, but he makes it to his car. So with their car they follow him home. From here on, “Monsters” is “chase flic” about two middle-class protagonists storming the sealed-off citadels of the rich and comfortable, who have their own sophisticated red-tape defense system.

Sonia, accompanied by the silent Dario, is armed only with her medical documents and one other thing—a gun. And she waves it fearlessly in the faces of the sophisticated rich males who block her way. They return to the doctor’s home, a sleek apartment, and she pleads her case.

At gun point, the doctor claims that important sections are missing from the contract; so, with the doctor in tow, they track down the C.E.O. of the insurance firm, then with the C.E.O. as prisoner, they pursue the lawyer whose signature is required for the document’s validity. They have tracked the C.E.O. to the steam room at his private athletic club. Here the director treats the viewer to a comic scene of naked businessmen hustling from sauna to locker rooms to escape the invading female’s pistol. 

Suddenly, at the home of the lawyer, as the group huddles at gun point and goes through the motions of legitimizing insurance papers, shots ring out. Sonia falls as Dario, couching behind a desk, takes a phone call and learns that his father has died. Police swoop in for the arrest. Sonia, wounded and refusing to accept the death report, is hospitalized as Dario sits silently in the waiting room. A hospital guard tells Dario he can’t stay there. Dario replies that he will not budge. If the guard wants him out he must throw him out. Time passes and Sonia comes and joins him for an embrace.

Throughout, director Rodrigo Pla employs a cinematic devise of voice-overs from another, future event: the courtroom. Survivors tell the judge in one-sentence testimony their version of what we are actually viewing. We know that somehow this all ends in court, but not how.

The final scene is a live TV rendition of Sonia entering the courtroom in prison garb to receive the judge’s decision. A Mexican gentleman I spoke to later explained to me that the plain-clothed police were not insurance company guards, as I had supposed, but a subgroup of the the city police who are notoriously brutal. And yes, the Mexican people will recognize their medical industry in this film. “Monster” does not argue that Sonia is correct in demanding medicine at pistol point, but it does dramatize how the ordinary middle-class person is, confronted by a corrupt insurance industry, helpless. To what degree Mexico’s problem resembles our own is for us to ask and answer. 

Directed by Rodrigo Pla, “A Monster with a Thousand Heads” is based on a novel by Laura Santullo. It opens in select cities on May 11.

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Rowan Webb
1 year 4 months ago
Is this a production based on reality? I have no doubt that there are a lot of people out there facing the same issues regarding their health insurance - that they have nowhere to turn once the companies rule that a claim cannot be admitted. Surely there has to be more that we can do for people in these situations so that it will never boil down to these alternative "solutions"...

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