Saturday, 20 November 2010

Review : We Are What We Are (Somos Lo Que Hay)


Mexican writer/director Jorge Michel Grau’s determinedly arthouse horror film succeeds in dispensing with most genre conventions from the start, only to ultimately succumb in an inevitably grisly and formulaic final act. His preoccupations in the set-up appear more concerned with familial disintegration and inherited behavioural patterns than evocations of horror or terror in a more traditional sense, the ritualistic cannibalism that binds the protagonists presented as matter-of-factly as the title of the film, the genesis of their taste in this particular type of meat left unexplained but its repercussions not unexplored, and works hard to avoid both the silliness and inherent nastiness evident in the thematically similar Trouble Every Day by Claire Denis.
“They told me someone died at the mall. The man who looks at mannequins. Dad’s dead.”
When their father collapses, spewing black slime in the local shopping centre, it’s up to his three children to provide the food for their next meal. Leaving her mother to mourn in her locked room, Sabina (Paulina Gaitan) sends her two brothers on their first ineffective hunting expedition, a botched attempt to snatch a street-kid from under the nearby overpass for what they refer to as ‘the ritual’. Returning home empty-handed they’re admonished for their recklessness by their mother and patched up by Sabina, who tells older brother Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro) that he must assume the role of patriarch and take control of the family affairs, his temperament more fitting to the task than that of younger sibling Julián (Alan Chávez), whose propensity for violently impetuous outbursts is sure to attract trouble.
It’s the inter-familial dynamics which provide the most interest, the children struggling to determine their own identities and relationships in the aftermath of their father’s death. Tenderly coercing the more pensive Alfredo to take charge and dismissing the more inherently animalistic Julián, it’s clear that the true power in the household lies with Sabina, satisfying the maternal needs of Alfredo and the incestuous longings of Julián, she’s the driving force holding the family together and the flip-side to her cold, overbearing mother. The idea of the children upholding ‘the sins of the father’ is keenly felt and it’s the need for approval and respect from their mother that spurs them on, particularly in the case of Alfredo, the most questioning of the offspring , attracted and repulsed by both his burgeoning sexuality and his inherited appetite for human flesh.
Alfredo – “Why did you make me this way?”
Mother – “I did nothing. You were born this way.”
It’s the sociological subtext which at times becomes a little confused, presenting in the first half a picture of depravity and corruption that extends much further than the confines of the family home. It’s set up as a man-eat-man world in which everyone is fighting for survival and looking out for number one, in a literal sense with the family who feed even further down the socio-economic food chain but also the corrupt cops on the case hoping for promotion and even presidential recognition for capturing them, it’s an underworld hidden from the consumerist society above, mall cleaners swiftly and efficiently removing the dead father from the view of oblivious passers-by at the start. Cannibalism as a metaphor for the all-consuming nature of urbanisation is a motif made explicit by the coroner who performs an autopsy on the dead father only to find a fully formed finger in his stomach, presenting it to the police with the line “It’s shocking how many people eat each other in this city… they blame the rats”, it’s an idea built upon later in the film when we hear that such acts even have their own police radio call sign “We have a 14 in progress”, but one undermined by the insistence later in the film that the act is simply a peculiarly personal (yet unexplained) ‘ritual’ for the family rather than representative of any more universal societal sickness, it seems ultimately that they don’t have to do this to survive as they’re slowly reduced to more generic horror movie psychos, the final shot forcing the point with Sabina’s crazed smirk.
Mother – “We’re monsters, Julián”
It is however, brilliantly crafted. The dank, grimy production design emphasised by a murky cinematography that brings out the browns, greens and reds of the apartment, full of ticking clocks that seemingly count down to a predestined time for the ‘ritual’ to take place, underscored by atonal and screeching strings. Violence mostly takes place off screen or in barely lit shadows, the final ceremony presided over by the two women with meat hooks, candle-lit behind plastic sheeting. The final act descends into bloody police procedural at odds with the control exercised over the first half of the film but for the most part steers clear of genre conventions long enough to make Grau a talent in Mexican cinema to watch, the balance between genre, arthouse cinema and sociological commentary may not be perfectly weighed here, but it certainly aims higher than many of his contemporaries playing the same field.
We Are What We Are (Somos Lo Que Hay) – 2009 – Mexico  - Jorge Michel Grau

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