Thursday, 7 April 2011

We Are What We Are (2010)

Country: MEXICO

Somos lo que hay (Original title)

Mexican writer/director Jorge Michel Grau has crafted a powerful debut feature which seamlessly blends horror and art cinema into a potent social allegory which has the family at its centre. Although Grau downplays the horror elements of his narrative, the decision to use certain generic signifiers offers a potential new direction for an increasingly unadventurous national cinema that seems more preoccupied in genuflecting at the altar of past glories. For much of the films running time this is a family melodrama, but one which becomes increasingly desperate and hysterical. With this increase in tension comes certain plot revelations that propels the frantic family into a series of actions that eventually lead to disunity and downfall. The film opens with the death of the family patriarch in a modern shopping mall. After riding the gleaming escalators the man stares with undisguised hunger at a series of shop mannequins, before throwing up black vomit and expiring on the spotless white floor tiles. Within seconds of his death his corpse has been carted off and his mess mopped up. The swiftness and efficiency of his removal in this middle class consumerist space is easily the most troubling aspect of this opening. We soon discover that not only was this bedraggled chap the head of the family, but also the hunter. For we are in the company of a family of modern day cannibals. His addiction to whores, and the implicated disease ridden nature of their flesh, not only costs him his life, but plunges his family into crisis.

The actual cannibalism aspect of the plot is repeatedly understated by the director. It is presented in the most matter of fact way possible. We are offered no explanation as to the families dependency on human flesh, aside from a burning need to maintain the ritualised element of the slaughter. In less accomplished films dealing with the subject of cannibalism, the flesh eating becomes the exaggerated centrepiece of the narrative. Here the act is made distinctive by its sheer dullness. This is what the family must do in order to survive, it is an everyday concern, and it is presented in a manner which emphasises the predictability and ordinariness of the deed. Cannibalism is of course a symbolic and metaphoric motif, but instead of the usual predictable allegory of third world hunger, Grau instead uses it as a symbol of social disenfranchisement. Within this alienated culture amid the working class and grimy streets of Mexico City is a family torn asunder by many of the same concerns a regular family might face. The matriarch (Carmen Beato) is aggressively domineering, is poisoned by her hatred of whores, and rejects the affections of her highly confused son Alfredo (Francisco Berreiro). Alfredo must not only contend with stepping up to the plate to fill his father’s vacant role, but also his own sexuality, and his moral disgust at the iniquity of the cannibalistic ritual. Although his brother Julian (Alan Chavez) is a violent firebrand, their masculinity exists in servitude to their sister Sabina (Paulina Gaitan) whose quiet control and persuasion is far more effective than the mothers violent histrionics.

While Julian is content to snatch a whore off the street, the thoughtful and intelligent Alfredo utilises his sexuality. The simmering sibling rivalry regularly explodes in violence and rage. While Alfredo’s subservience to Sabina is due to her practicality, intelligence and emotional support, Julian harbours incestuous desires. Sabina uses her mind and body to keep her brothers bound to her. The blackly comic aspects of the film build up by exploring the incompetence of the new hunters as they employ different tactics and strategies to ensnare human quarry. Much needed humour is also offered the two investigating cops who are only concerned with the fame and fortune that breaking such a case would afford them. The cops are depicted as bungling imbeciles, open to all kinds of corruption and bargaining. One particularly unsavoury scene sees one of the cops tempted by a child prostitute. In this respect Grau is clearly attacking the ineffectual and hypocritical authorities, but in general the allegorical dimension of the film is very oblique. It seems to be about everything, and yet at the same time nothing. This is because Grau seems much more interested with family dynamics rather than some major statement about Mexican society. These aspects are naturally there for those wishing to develop that reading, but they are not the engine that drives the film forward.

One aspect that does however help the family to survive is the general air of lawlessness that pervades this district of the city. None of the authorities we see are surprised that cannibals are operating in the city. It is almost presented as a rational form of criminality in the urban hell we are shown. Grau extends this lived in griminess to his formal presentation; a visual dankness pervades, the camera is handheld, there is nothing pretty about the visuals. The home of the family is a murky and cluttered space, the walls covered in clocks. One of the films recurrent themes is time as a circular and inescapable process in which fate and destiny is determined by the ritual. There is enough blood and guts on display to keep gore-hounds happy, but the most unsettling scene in which the mother is beaten to death by a gang of avenging hookers actually takes place off screen. The visuals may put some off, but the themes of chaos, disorientation, alienation and familial upheaval are handled well enough to merit greater exposure for this impressive debut.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. Thanks for the heads up on this one - sounds interesting. If I get a chance this year amongst all the weird old stuff I've got lined up, I've been meaning to make a special effort to check out a few carefully selected modern horror films... this definitely makes the list.

    Oh, and the director is definitely not the same Jorge Grau who gave us "Living Dead in the Manchester Morgue" I take it..?

  2. No problem Ben - it's certainly worth a look. No its not the MANCHESTER MORGUE guy, though that did cross my mind as well.

  3. Wow. This looks really great. Must find... must find SOON.

  4. I've ordered this from Amazon after spotting it while trawling, so I'm glad its good!


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