We Are What We Are 2010 Mexico
Directed by Jorge Michel Grau
Playing at all good cinemas now!
Warning: Beware you don’t accidentally choke on some of the less appetising spoilers found in this blog post!
It’s rare that my local cinema has anything playing than movies made in the USA so I was very happy when I learned that the new Mexican cannibal movie We Are What We Are was showing there this week.
I rushed (well yeah, okay, kinda meandered) to a screening not quite knowing what to expect. I’ve not seen that many cannibal movies... at least none of the dubiously termed “classics” from the early 80s so I wasn’t sure what to expect. In fact, now I come to think of it, I think the nearest thing I’ve got to a cannibal movie was Jeunet’s masterpiece Delicatessen... but I don’t think that one counts somehow. What I do know is this... whatever it was I was thinking I was going to see - this wasn’t it!
We Are What We Are is a really well made, gripping and thoroughly compelling watch.
The action takes place over the course of about 24 hours and the set up to the story is simple... a man dies. His family are cannibals who have to eat somebody very soon in order to fulfil a specific ritual which they believe will stop them from death or a fate worse than death - the exact consequences are not made very clear but that doesn’t matter because their belief on the need for urgency is more than clearly transmitted to the viewer in no uncertain terms. The cupboard/refrigerator is completely bare and the remaining family members (a mother, two sons and a daughter) will have to bring home the bacon (if you will) before their deadline is up the next day.
And that’s the whole set up.
The rest of the picture takes its time but leaves you with the creeping realisation that this family, while coping with grief, are just not very smart. There is so much scope contained in the characters for them to go wrong... and they really do. We have a controlling sister who talks the more sensitive son into being the new leader, we have his brother who is pretty much going to get into any fight at any time and just resort to violence at the drop of a hat (which introduces a useful element of hard instability into the narrative) and you have the mother who is expecting things to get done right and who is emotionally out of control - she hates prostitutes and after the family collectively kill one to eat, she rejects this offering and then takes the battered carcass openly to the local streetwalkers as a warning to them to stay away... obviously not a smart thing to do as the cops soon get in on the act.
Basically, you suspect that things are probably going to turn out badly for the family and, pretty much they do... but I don’t want to give too much away about the ending and it’s little epilogue scene.
I’ve really not seen much Mexican cinema but, like most foreign films I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, the dialogue is not the most important thing here. This movie doesn’t shy away from dialogue, far from it, but it doesn’t rely on it to tell its story. There are great chunks of this movie which have no dialogue at all... a purer form of cinema perhaps in that it is not afraid to use dialogue but as an equal element to both support and be supported by the film as a visual medium. The speaking will stop or pause for a while, drop in or out at it’s own pace and it seems to work really well here. A lot of modern directors tend to overuse dialogue and make it the cause and effect of the narrative flow. Here it’s as much about what’s left unsaid and, in many cases, unrevealed to the audience, that helps propel the movie along at it’s own rate.
And the visual style of this movie is also very interesting. It’s got a very European kind of camerawork (sorry if you don’t understand what I mean here, I’m not a techie so am possibly expressing myself badly) in that the camera will wander around a location at it’s own pace and not be afraid of letting the protagonists wander in and out of frame... it just kinda explores the surroundings almost lazily without getting hung up on people and letting the collective eye of the audience explore the milieu through the details of the environment that these characters inhabit (usually a quite darkly lit environment). And this is very much at odds with the fact that the camera is wandering through sets and environments which are absolutely jam packed and filled to the brim with an abundance of paraphernalia. An interesting juxtaposition of sensibilities.
Asides from giving this movie a very voyeuristic feel to the proceedings (which of course gives it a sense of reality and powerful credibility to the way it’s experienced) this kind of camera-style also helps with the way a lot of the violence is portrayed. Most of the violent acts committed in this film seem to happen just off screen... this isn’t really a blatantly gory or exploitational film. What it does though is play up the sound effects in all their, literally, bone crunching glory which, coupled with what the viewer doesn’t see, makes the imagination and impact of what’s going on much more palpable.
This is echoed in the way it sometimes shows the approach to an incident, misses the incident itself out and then returns to the aftermath/consequences of an incident... which in some instances make this much more jolting. Like the scene near the end where the mother is resting in a playground, not seeing a group of vengeance-hearted prostitutes walking up to her... when you later see her bloody body on the ground and nobody else in shot, your imagination is left to fill in the blanks once more.
The minimalistic musical score by Enrico Chapela helps too. It’s pretty much a string based score... and in a couple of moments when it’s being a bit more coherent and sustained, it sounds very much like Herrmanns more sedate moments from Psycho. A lot of it is very atonal string plucking which also, like the tone of the film not relying too much on dialogue, just kind of wanders in and out of a scene at random... although not necessarily at consciously perceived natural breaks as the dialogue needs to in order to remain coherent. But it certainly does do musically Pinteresque things like play a few jarring notes... pause for a while... play another few notes... pause for a while etc. Very interesting use of music throughout.
All in all I’d say We Are What We Are is a perfect starter for anybody’s cinematic meal for the next week or so while it’s still playing... but be careful because... after all... you are what you eat!