We Are What We Are, 2010.
Written and Directed by Jorge Michel Grau.
Starring Adrián Aguirre, Miriam Balderas, Francisco Barreiro, Carmen Beato and Alan Chávez.
After the head of a family of cannibals dies, his wife and three children must confront the question of how to survive.
We Are What We Are is a family film. But not one in the typical, animated and cuddly mould. Its grisly, grown up themes of cannibalism and corruption, prostitution, parenthood and sexuality, make a cocktail of taboos pretty clearly unsuitable for children. This is a story about the transition from the child to adult worlds though, based far more firmly on the drama of volatile family relationships than blood and gore.
That said this Mexican film by writer/director Jorge Michel Grau has some horrific elements to it. In the very opening scene a soundtrack of jumpy, chilling strings coupled with the sight of a man coughing and spluttering to death with agony drowned eyes, sets out the various shocks to come. The beginning of the story is also loaded with social and political comment, which continues throughout. We watch as the staggering father of the family finally collapses to a messy death, only for his sprawling body to be swiftly dragged away by shopping centre staff. In one attractive shot from an inventive camera angle, we see the still warm corpse heaved away like a bag of sand, a cleaner immediately wipe away the drool and blood and finally a group of happily chatting girls walk right over the spot where he breathed his last.
Indeed Grau’s distinctive stylistic touch makes the most of the contrasting wealth and scenery of Mexico City right the way through We Are What We Are, so that at times it is a visually beautiful film as well as one capable of shocking and delivering political points resonantly. We see the slums, the towering roads and the modern malls. We experience the corruption, crime and poverty of one of the world’s largest cities. All of this means that this film is more than a conventional horror; as Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian puts it, the central premise of cannibalism is “a symptom of the horror; not the cause”. The true horrors are the easily accessible, addictive sex trade, the grim living conditions and the shaky, sporadic sense of law and order.
It’s ultimately the strength of the characterisation within the core family dynamic that ensures Grau’s film does not become an essay on the inequalities of city life or simply an unconventional horror movie. With the father’s death, the two brothers of the family are left to assume leadership duties. A wonderfully shot and acted market scene in which the younger sibling gets into a needless fight, establishes his violent unpredictability; a poor choice then, for leader of covert cannibals. The same scene however gives us a lingering first look at older brother Alfredo. He is forever wearing a sulking, sickly expression, and seems too weak, awkward and innocent to capture the family’s specific dietary requirements. Even if he does look like a vampire. Encouraged by his confident, manipulative sister Sabina behind the scenes however, he reluctantly agrees to keep the reins of command away from their dangerous brother.
We Are What We Are breaks almost every kind of taboo. But what’s so refreshing about it is that they compliment the truths and drama of the narrative; they are not mindless headline grabbing additions. There are undertones of incestuous tension between all three siblings, perhaps not surprising given their taste for human flesh. Alfredo’s awkwardness is explained as he battles his own personal sexual demons and seeks a sense of identity, stalking groups of guys into gay bars. Their mother, bitter that her husband used to seek out whores like heroin, beats one to death and returns it defiantly to the side of the road.
There are glimmers of light relief amongst the serious soul searching, gut spilling and social comment. There’s a movingly beautiful song on a train. And the eccentric coroner, if that’s what you’d call him, steals a scene in which a finger is revealed from the body of the dead dad. He has gone to great lengths beautifying the deceased, only for his colleague to reveal that they plan to cremate him. Also in this scene we meet a pair of bumbling cops, out for their own gain. They serve as both a diversion from the intense family drama and further comment on the corrupt police force.
It all concludes with an action packed, bloody ending, involving a fascinating twist between the three siblings that’s open to interpretation. We Are What We Are takes an age old staple of horror and uses it to craft a superbly symbolic story about many of the fears, problems and real life horrors of the modern world. It’s excellently acted and directed, to such an extent that you sympathise with the struggles of the cannibalistic creatures at the story’s heart. With a snappy 90 minute running time, Grau leaves you hungry for more.
I’m sorry I couldn’t resist.
Liam Trim (follow me on Twitter)
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