Manny Perez, who wrote and stars in the new crime thriller La Soga, spent a part of his adolescence in Providence. He still visits family here. And Lord knows he could have found plenty of material in the city’s storied history of gangsterism.
But his muse for the film was his native Dominican Republic. Until he was 10, he lived in the poor village of Baitoa, where most of the film was shot, and a suburb of Santiago, where about 15 years ago he witnessed the violent event that inspired La Soga, Spanish for "The Rope."
As Perez explains it: "A cop who at the time had 'a license to kill' pulled up in a pickup truck with about 50 bullet holes on it, and he went inside my friend’s house and pulled him out by his hair, and in the middle of the town, he executed him and then threw him in the back of his pickup truck and drove him around as a display for the town to see. I was in shock: 'Who’s that monster that killed my friend?'"
That monster seems to take center stage in the film in the character of Luisito, better known as "La Soga" for his weapon of choice. Having witnessed his father’s murder as a boy, his lust for revenge leads to his recruitment as executioner for the Dominican secret police. But after learning of lies and betrayal by the general he works for, Luisito — played by Perez — makes justice his concern.
"Almost everything in this film is based on true events that have happened and some are still happening in the Dominican Republic," Perez says. "Some events occurred to me or to friends of mine, so I put those elements in the film. Of course, for story sake, I had to punch up or exaggerate a few elements to fit the story and to move forward."
Perez has been around for awhile. He co-wrote and starred in the acclaimed indie film Washington Heights (2002). The New York Times wrote that "Mr. Perez has charisma to burn" after that performance. He also starred in Sidney Lumet’s 2001-02 courthouse TV series 100 Centre Street.
But La Soga, whatever the auteur’s background, was hardly a big-budget production. And that meant there wasn’t much to pay for security in the dangerous neighborhoods that serve as backdrop for the film. The crew had to depend on a local machete fighting champ who volunteered to protect them.
Director Josh Crook was particularly worried about safety since he didn’t understand Spanish and could only guess intentions from expressions and body language. He was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying: "Our motto when we wrapped each day was, 'We didn’t die!'"
Perez was equally relieved. "You bet your ass we were scared as we were shooting," he says. "But it was the best experience we ever had in this crazy world of independent filmmaking."
La Soga, which has been compared to City of God and Amores Perros in its grittiness, is now playing at the Providence Place Mall.