Thursday, May 19, 2011

We Are What We Are

Directed by: Jorge Michel Grau
Produced by: Nicolás Celis; Henner Hoffman; Liliana Pardo
Screenplay by: Jorge Michel Grau
Music by: Enrico Chapela
Cinematography: Santiago Sanchez
Release date(s): March 15, 2010 (Guadalajara)
Running time: 90 minutes
Country: Mexico
Language: Spanish

I had read two completely contrasting reviews before watching We Are What We Are (Somos lo que hay, 2010), a Mexican cannibal-horror-thriller. One review praised the film for its fresh look at the exploitation genre, as a commentary on post-modern urban alienation, and as a satire on the same, while the other condemned the film’s exploitation sequences, since it’s achieved at the expense of prostitutes and gay men.

After watching the film, I can confirm that both the views are true to a certain extent. The film is both, and is quite engrossing while it lasts, but you expect more, especially when it is so expertly photographed and fantastically acted. I liked the film immensely, but loath to recommend it to anyone. For the uninitiated, the film would be bloody violent, and if you are a fan of the Saw movies, you may be disappointed.

The title of film sounds a little cocky and arrogant, and the attitude spreads to the screenplay. The film gives us a family of cannibals but doesn’t tell us their motives and implications. How did they become cannibals? Do they eat food other than the human flesh? If getting a human body is so important then why didn’t the father teach his two grown-up sons how to hunt? As the film progresses, the family members mention the word “ritual” involving the human body, but again there is no exposition. I’m not a big fan of expositions, but you need some kind of a rationale to root for the characters on screen, even if they are despicable.

The film opens with the glitter and glass of a swanky mall in Mexico City, where an older man in tattered clothes is mesmerised by a female mannequin. A while later, he drops dead.

We are introduced to the family, a bitter mother and her three children, the mild-mannered elder brother, the aggressive younger brother and an inscrutable sister, Sabina (Paulina Gaitan from Sin Nombre (2009)). We understand that the father, who earns his living by repairing watches (which explains why their derelict house is filled with watches of various shapes and sizes, along with stakes and stakes of cardboard boxes, perhaps all empty), remain absent often, and in days like this, the sons go to the market to put up the shop, a chore they abhor.

Soon Sabina brings the news that their father is dead, and mother comments that it was his addiction to whores that killed him. Meanwhile, in the morgue, they find a woman’s finger, complete with the nail paint, inside the old man, and cops are informed. There are a lot of people these days who eat their fellow human beings, says the man from the morgue.

With the death of the patriarch, the hierarchy of the family is on the verge of collapse. The mother says from now on she will take the decisions in the family, and there will be no prostitutes in the house. However, Sabina coaxes her brother to assume the responsibility, and she can be really persuasive when there’s a need. But what this leadership entails? To bring home a hunt, a human body, of course.

The brothers target a prostitute, since it’s the easy prey. The scared girl offers herself in exchange of death: “You can both fuck me,” she says, but please don’t kill me.” And we see the young brother fondling his prey. But the mother is adamant about the prostitutes. She kills the poor girl, packs her up in a sack and disposes it at the red light district as a warning that the girls shouldn’t mess with her sons.

From here on, the event spirals from bad to worse. The police are now in the look out for the cannibals, while the cannibals still need a body to complete the ritual. Everything will be all right once we finish the ritual, says the mother confidently. As he roams aimlessly, the elder brother wanders into a gay bar, and after a hurried kiss, perhaps his first, he realises that he can take the boy home. When he reaches home, his bother says, “I’m not eating a fag.” Meanwhile, the mother had acquired another man, and the police are hot on the trail, as we inch towards the inevitable end.

To his credit, first-time director Jorge Michel Grau does not revel in graphic violence. There are a lot of graphic scenes, but the camera refuses to linger on them; instead it lingers on the faces of the three youngsters, who must find their way out to survive. Here, cannibalism does not become a theme, but a means to explore something else — family relations, coming-of-age, sexuality, including a hint of incest, poverty, exploitation... and above all, survival, as the dying brother writes on a piece of paper and gives it to Sabina: “You live.” To be able to live itself is an accomplishment.

The Peter Bradshaw review in The Guardian
The Slant Magazine review.

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