Perhaps the world's first kitchen sink cannibal movie, Jorge Michel Grau's We Are What We Are (Somos lo que hay)
carves its own minimalist niche in a well-worn genre.
When the patriarch of their family dies unexpectedly, it's down to his widow and three teenage offspring to pick up the pieces. In a squalid Mexico project they set about their slightly unusual household chores of hunting for human meat and preparing for essential cannibalistic rituals. As the inexperienced teens bicker amongst themselves and struggle to fulfil their gruelling duties, the family is pushed to breaking point.
If you're expecting (and by now you shouldn't be) a gore-filled feast of flesh eating, then look elsewhere. For the first half of the movie, there's barely a drop of blood spilt, and when the violence does come it's shot with the same stark realist aesthetic as the rest of the film. Blunt and alarmingly sudden it's more The Road
than Dawn of the Dead
on the flesh-munching spectrum. What Grau's film is concerned with is supposing this affliction - none of the family seem happy to have the taste for human flesh - is happening to resolutely 'normal' people. Living on the breadline, the cannibalism is perceived as a necessary way of dealing with their tough lives - almost a crime of desperation. So too, their rituals are dealt with as a necessity that needs no explanation - they just do what they do. Explanation or justification remain elusive. This is a socio-economic tragedy more than a terrifying horror.
The sparse string-led score is fantastic, in keeping with the social realist vibe and reminiscent more of European arthouse dramas than the horror genre. Eerie and haunting it lends a warped sadness to proceedings.
Whilst I admire what Grau has done with this sub-genre thematically, it's never fully immersing and I struggled to really care what happened to these characters. Cannibal tendencies aside we don't find out much about these people or what makes them tick - they are defined by their behaviour alone. This of course can be fascinating (cue a raft of 'men-and-their-work' films), but here feels hollow. Contrast the portrayals to the characters in a film from those purveyors of social realism, the Dardenne brothers, and they're sorely lacking. However flawed Jérémie Renier's character is in The Child
, for example, you're engrossed and enthralled throughout. And not just with him, but the whole supporting cast. There's more to the aesthetic than simply dumping your characters into it.
We Are What We Are
is a valiant and somewhat pioneering blend of genre, but one that ultimately falls short of living up to its premise, despite some interesting ideas.We Are What We Are is out on UK DVD and Blu-ray from 21st March 2011 through Chelsea Cinema.
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