[Our thanks to Lauren Baggett for the following review.]
I'll enthusiastically and without reservation echo what Todd Brown said back in March - this is the film of the year. An astoundingly assured debut from Jorge Michel Grau, We Are What We Are transcends its reputation as "the Mexican cannibal movie" and delivers an unflinching, uncompromising vision that is at once enthralling, frightening, and oddly beautiful.
The plot follows a poor family in Mexico City for a few intense days as they deal with the loss of their ne'er-do-well patriarch. With their father gone, not only their livelihood is under threat, but also their survival. "The ritual", a cannibalistic rite which is never explicitly explained, must continue. The family must be fed, and the task of bringing home human meat must be passed on. Alfredo, the eldest child, is unwillingly thrust into the role, and he is forced to deal with his despairing mother, his fanatical sister, and a younger brother, Julian, who is a twitching, ticking time bomb of poorly controlled violence.
Complications inevitably ensue - a couple of fame-hungry cops are on their tail, a power struggle between the two boys threatens to expose the family, and they are all growing ever more hungry with each passing hour.
The first few attempts to procure victims for the ritual backfire in one way or another, and as the family grows ever more desperate, they are each forced to make reckless and devastating decisions. This cannot end well, and Grau pilots the depiction of the family's downfall with a power that makes it impossible to look away.
Most of the film takes place within the stifling confines of the family home, a setting filled to the brim with ticking clocks (evidence of the father's meager occupation) and jars filled with mysterious liquids. I haven't seen an interior imbued with more character and menace since A Tale of Two Sisters. The three children, all teenaged, are forced to confide in each other when their mother is falling apart at the seams. The trio prowl the house like caged animals. They are as trapped in their lives as their bound victims are, and it shows in their fraught interactions with each other and in the way that they stare out the filthy windows at the world they cannot fully participate in. A lifetime of sublimation and indoctrination has tainted everything about them, even their sexuality (perhaps especially their sexuality). In a world where Sabina the pretty sister wields an axe with power and the mother dispatches men with shovels to the face, boundaries have been blurred to the point where incestuous undertones seem inevitable. To escape scrutiny, the family is forced to prey on those even more helpless than they, like street children and prostitutes. Though the scenes of the family hunting and dispatching their victims holds slivers of the blackest humor, the audience is never meant to delight in these killings. Grau grants the denizens of this hellish city a sympathy that Alfredo and company are incapable of feeling, and it is hard to root against those who would seek revenge against the family.
The acting is remarkably strong all around. Francisco Berreiro as eldest child Alfredo is all hunched shoulders and restraint; his struggle between wanting a normal life with normal desires and following the twisted path his family has taken is heart-wrenching to watch. The sequence well into the film where Alfredo grants himself a moment of freedom and affection, all the while knowing that he will take the boy he is kissing back home to be eaten, is nothing short of tremendous. Alan Chávez as Julian, the psychopathic younger brother, also startles. His hair-trigger temper and indifference to suffering is rivaled only by the gentleness he shows toward his sister. (According to IMDB, Chávez was shot and killed by police last fall, adding an even darker subtext to the bloody finale).
Critics have been comparing this to Let The Right One In, which isn't entirely fair to either film. While both films share a slow burn and subtle pace that eventually boils over into violence, We Are What We Are remains firmly grounded in the realm of the non-supernatural. It also may be a better film than Let The Right One In, though that's an opinion that I'll have to form more fully over time and with more viewings. Gore fans may also be disappointed if they're expecting an hour and a half of Alfredo and company chowing down. That isn't Grau's mission, and while the violence is unflinching when shown, the director forces us to focus on the people just as much as the havoc they wreak. The characters are all trapped by their subservience to their violent lifestyle, but the violence of We Are What We Are never overwhelms the portrait of a family at the bloody, unthinkable brink.
It's a beautiful film, one that is still rumbling around in my brain twelve hours later, one that I'm sure will stay with me for some time to come. My only regret is that Fantasia only scheduled one screening - it seems to have fallen somewhat under the radar in this year's program, and it deserves more exposure. I certainly won't rest until I've seen it again; until then, We Are What We Are's horrible beauty will haunt me.
Review by Lauren Baggett
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