Viewers of Jorge Michel Grau’s astonishing “We Are What We Are” may be forgiven for initially thinking they’ve stumbled in on a Mexican equivalent of yet another of those ubiquitous George A. Romero zombie movie homages during the film’s defiantly over-long opening static shot of a shambling figure slowly being carried up an empty escalator in a chromium bright shopping mall. In fact, this unusual film -- its young writer-director’s feature debut -- is a quite bizarre fable that combines elements of grim social realism, tender coming-of-age drama and sly black comedy with a macabre tale about a deranged, isolated cannibal family, beholden to the carrying out of an unspecified flesh-eating ritual in the dingy slums of Mexico City on the outskirts of its bicentennial park. The film broadly falls into that new(-ish) sub-genre category that combines the sedate pacing of the arthouse film with the bloody carnality of the modern horror genre. Comparisons to “Let the Right One in” predictably abound, but it reminded me more of Fabrice Du Welz’s intensely strange yet moving “Vinyan”, with an extra layer of outré humour and offbeat oddity added for good measure. The danger for films that occupy this ill-defined middle ground is that they fall between audience demographics, being too slow and thoughtful for the gore-hounds and too sick and bloody for the more refined World Film culture buffs. “We Are What We Are” makes no concessions for viewers who can’t bridge this genre gap – it plays like a nuanced, realistic family portrait of survival and self-expression, set in the midst of the hidden poverty-stricken society that’s usually airbrushed out of Mexico’s tourist industry blurbs, but then suddenly takes a sinister detour into some twisted byways where contemporary social realism meets the aesthetic of the Grindhouse. The messy collision results in something altogether unique, and tonally hard to pin down.
The dirty, dishevelled, tottering figure we see at the very start of the film (Humberto Yáñez) next makes his way into a spotlessly clean shopping precinct where he leers and points at the department store mannequins posed in bikini beachwear in the windows, before collapsing and expiring in a puddle of his own sticky black bile. The crumpled body is quickly cleared away by security -- a human stain like the vile traces that are immediately mopped from the street (by a miraculously appearing, fast-working cleaner) before they get to impinge on the sunlit consumer paradise of Mexico’s holiday shoppers.
The deceased will still be missed by a tiny minority of the city throng, though: on the shocked realisation of his passing (after he fails to come home from work that day), the dead man’s wife (Carmen Beato) retreats into sullen solitude in the family’s dingy shack of a dwelling: a mosaic of ticking clocks and timepieces -- ostensibly there because of the dead patriarch’s barely subsistent living as a watch repairer on a market store in the city -- and his three children try to come to terms with now having to ‘bring home the bacon’ and take their father’s place as provider of the family’s very particular needs. The pretty daughter Sabina (Paulina Gaitan) at first acts as surrogate nurturer to her two brothers, the unstable and wayward Julian and the quiet and diffident Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro) -- and after they get kicked off their stall in the market (and Julian beats up an unhappy customer!) tries to persuade Alfredo (he being the most balanced and ‘sensitive’ of the tribe) that it is his responsibility to take over the role of head of the family. The larger part of the film consists of Alfredo attempting to find a way of doing just that, while also dealing with his contemptuous brother and his increasingly hysterical and unpredictable mother.
Alfredo’s task quickly takes on added dimensions of the macabre and the grimly fantastical despite the relentlessly grim social setting of the movie. The dead father was a cannibal, and has evidently inculcated the rest of his clan with his own proclivities for the eating of the flesh of human beings, by making the act a part of a superstitious practice of some kind, the precise parameters of which are never clearly stated except to say they involve a ritual which requires assiduous preparation of the body before eating that appears to have taken on a quasi-Catholic, sacramental quality. Alfredo and Julian begin to explore ways of acting as responsible grownups within this isolated, perverse family set up -- taking their dead dad’s methods as their only model.
The duo’s first hapless attempts at providing for the coming ritual involve trying to capture one of the homeless children that congregate around the rubbish dumps under the concrete flyovers strewn around the city outskirts. It soon transpires that ‘the hunt’ for human flesh for the necessary family ritual is heavily defined and marked by sexual identity and practice though. Their father’s preference for prostitutes ultimately resulted in his unhappy end, but it is the only model the boys have for their own as yet undefined sexual preferences, given their early lack of success with the wily homeless kids. Their awkward, unsubtle attempts to pick up a subject from the graffitied warren of ill-lit alleys that make up Mexico’s red light district, lead to a violent confrontation with their mother, who previously managed to ignore her husband’s whoring, but is not prepared to see her two sons go the same way.
The film opens up on some unexpected new horizons when it emerges that part of Alfredo’s reluctance to assume the mantle of family head revolves around his own sexual uncertainty. In tentatively facing up to and admitting to himself his own homosexuality, the boy finally attempts to assert an ideal of how the family ritual will be characterised from here on in. Bloodthirsty cannibals they may be, but Mother and brother alike react with perplexed disgust at this mooted new direction (‘I’m not eating a faggot!’ declares an astonished Julian).
The film doesn’t so much constantly shift tone as meld genres into new unrecognisable shapes: the violence is extreme and brutal but more of it occurs off camera than you think and depends largely on sickening sound effects, with bones heard crunching and ribs snapping horribly on the soundtrack amid the solemn, churchy gloom of the family’s candle-lit preparations for the ritual feasting on the chosen corpse. The middle section of the film meanwhile, in which the shy, nervous and unsure Alfredo approaches the first expressions of his burgeoning gayness after sheepishly following a gang of boys on the metro and into a techno-pumping gay nightspot, is shot like a sensitive coming-of-age-drama, but becomes part of an exploration of sexual-versus-social identity as Alfredo’s rabbit-caught-in-headlights biological attraction to the confident, strutting young fashionista who picks him up at the club (Alfredo, clad in his prim pullover, couldn’t look more out of place and inexperienced if he tried), is ultimately inextricably coupled with an identity forged by the rigours of upbringing and its semi-religiously motivated demands for human flesh. The film is a bleak portrait of the poor and disenfranchised elements of Mexican society and a deeply ironical examination how they are ultimately forced to the margins, where they have no option but to prey on each other for survival: gays and prostitutes and the homeless turn on each other while down-at-heel policemen search out the cannibal prostitute killers merely as a way of earning a promotion that will finally take them away from this hell hole of a city.
Grau’s film is shot with stately, measured tracking shots in 2.35:1 that unveil a realistic portrait of the less than salubrious, frequently rubbish-strewn portions of Mexico City; cinematographer Santiago Sanchez casts the interiors and night scenes in a perpetual inky gloom that often makes the details of the clan’s activities deliberately (and sometimes frustratingly) vague for the audience. The cast performances are naturalistic and downbeat for the most part, exploding into histrionics in the final section when Mother becomes particularly deranged, as all the elements converge on an ending that allows for (but hopefully will not produce!) a potential sequel. Particularly notable and adding in great measure to the movie’s edgy tone is the excellent music score by Enrico Chapella which encompasses sonorous death metal riffing, but is performed on a deep bass cello and a compliment of screeching, plucking strings.
“We Are What we Are” comes to UK DVD via Chelsea Films, with the disc featuring only a trailer as an extra and 5.1 Surround Sound and 2.0 Stereo audio options. The film is, though, extraordinarily evocative and provocative and is highly recommended.