“A Monster with a Thousand Heads” (“Un monstruo de mil cabezas”)
“A Monster With A Thousand Heads” begins with a late night medical emergency. A father, Guillermo (Memo), is ill and in need of care. As the film moves from home to hospital and back, we understand that this middle-class Mexican family is struggling to obtain the best course of treatment. Standing in their way and of which they have no control is a faceless, compassionless insurance firm that is intent on burying their claim in red tape.
Guillermo’s wife Sonia (Jana Raluy) refuses to take no for an answer and went about forcing the company to reconsider the case. She finds herself having to take drastic, desperate and dangerous steps in order to try and secure approval for her husband’s treatment. The stakes balloon higher and higher and the tension become more intense as the action unfolds in near real time.
We are very aware of the plight of the struggling family and its limited access to healthcare as well as how well the elite that run the health system live and the protections and access afforded them are well drawn. What we see is total and relentless.
Sonia refuses to tolerate a broken healthcare system that doesn’t allow life-saving medical care to be provided for her ailing husband, Memo (Daniel Cubillo). She’s is very, very angry and rightfully so. With a gun hidden in her purse, she drags along her teenage son, Dario (Sebastián Aguirre), to the hospital to try to confront Dr. Villalba (Hugo Albores) who’s been ignoring her phone calls. She even goes to his home to wait for him there before displaying the gun to him when he refuses to help her husband who can die at any minute without the much-needed treatment that her current health insurance doesn’t cover. All she needs is to have the treatment approved as part of the health coverage, but that takes more than one signature as it turns out, so she goes up through the chain of command in the healthcare system to get what she wants without being afraid to use her gun.
It is easy for us to empathize with Sonia. We might not agree with the way she acts but we certainly agree with the principal. We feel her anger, pain and desperation. She is a woman pushed to the edge by bureaucracy and an indifferent society. Her husband has cancer but the insurance company refuses to provide the medicine that he needs to ease his pain and perhaps reduce the tumor. Having been unable to reach the doctor in charge on the telephone, she goes to the offices of the company with her teenage son Dario but no one is interested in her case.
The receptionist is obstructive; the doctor (Hugo Albores) doesn’t want to know and as a voiceover of a trial plays over the action and we understand that something has occurred, or is going to. On following the doctor to his home, Sonia pulls a gun on him and his wife. She is determined to see her husband’s case reviewed and she resolutely takes it up the chain to the higher echelons of the company all the way to the CEO, Dr. Sandoval (Emilio Echeverría). Sandoval looks for a way to quiet Sonia and reveals documents that show his company has purposefully denied care as a way of making money and have told doctors to reject claims and ignoring rules.
Sonia is well aware that she is going to jail for her actions but she persists in having the documents printed and a deal between her and the company signed which will see the medicine released to her husband in return for her not publishing the evidence of malfeasance.
What we see is that everyone is a potential witness and we are all participants (the thousand heads of the monster) to a society that treats the vulnerable unjustly, but it won’t be that society which is on trial. Sonia appears in the margins of the screen as someone who needs to be holding a gun before she is noticed, or taken seriously. Raluy plays Sonia without hysterics but filled with pragmatic fury. She retains her humanity throughout her ordeal.
The title suggests a health insurance industry that has run amuck with bad faith and unstoppable corruption. However, it might also be about Sonia as a Medusa-like figure who sets off a change of events that is violent and involves her teenaged son. There are many sad stories about caregivers being given the runaround by health insurance companies whose goal is making money, not helping patients. This, however, revolves around a woman whose husband is dying and needs an expensive drug in order to survive. When she finds out that their insurance company will not cover the treatment, her righteous indignation is aroused, along with a zeal to move beyond her feelings of helplessness.
The film is based on a novel by Laura Santullo who also wrote the screenplay. This is an engrossing and taut drama that should touch many with its critical portrait of corporate malfeasance in the health insurance business. Sonia is a very sympathetic character, which makes it possible for us to empathize with her plight and her determination to save her husband’s life, no matter what it takes. The film raises many important ethical questions about greed, incivility, lying, cover-ups, and indifference to human suffering.