Monday, July 25, 2011

Repost: We Are What We Are (July 28th and 30th at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[WE ARE WHAT WE ARE screens Thursday July 28th at 6:00pm and Saturday July 30th at 9:40pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]
Review by Bob Ignizio

Although its main characters are a family of cannibals, it would be unfair to describe the new Mexican film WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (Somos lo que hay) as a horror movie. It isn't particularly concerned with depicting the fear of the family's victims or the mechanics of their demise. Rather it's a drama that uses cannibalism as an allegory for the way that family and tradition can sometimes make being true to ourselves and reaching our full potential extremely difficult. On a larger scale, it's also a commentary on how those in poverty are often forced to feed on each other to survive, and a criticism of traditional patriarchal values and cultural notions of machismo. No, really.

Papa (Humberto Yáñez) leads his family as a violent man of action, venturing out to hunt humans for his brood to eat. However, his sexual promiscuity leads him to put his own selfish desires ahead of the interests of his family, and ultimately to self destruction. His wife (Carmen Beato) resents his predilection for whores, but nonetheless defers to him out of a sense of tradition and because he brings home the bacon, so to speak.

When Papa dies, tradition dictates the first born son becomes the new leader. However, Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro) has no desire for that role. In fact, the only thing he does desire is the love of another man, but he's even more closeted about his homosexuality than he is about his cannibalism. Younger brother Julian (Alan Chavez) is truly his father's son, just as bloodthirsty but even more lacking in wisdom. The one member of the family best suited to lead is daughter Sabina (Paulina Gaitan), but because of her gender she can only influence from behind the scenes.

All of these issues come to a head as the family races against the clock to perform the ritual cannibalism they believe will grant them protection. But as inept and corrupt as the Mexican police force is (or at least as they are portrayed here), a couple of "fifth rate cops" are closing in on the family. And since father never bothered to teach his progeny any of his hunting techniques, they aren't nearly as adept at covering their tracks as he was. It doesn't exactly take a master detective to follow their trail.

Writer/director Jorge Michel Grau does a fine job balancing the subtext and the surface story, never hitting us over the head with his themes and keeping the surface story tense and engaging. Despite the potentially gruesome subject matter, shocks and elaborate murder set pieces are not the focus here. Grau directs with subtlety and restraint, keeping most of the violence and gore offscreen (sorry all you CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST fans). As for the cast, everyone plays their role with total commitment and no winking at the camera or camping it up.

WE ARE WHAT WE ARE achieves most of what it sets out to do, but the nature of the film is so emotionally distancing that it's difficult to stay involved with the characters, and thus share in the catharsis one of them experiences at the end. While certainly an original take on the cannibal film with many fine qualities, I ultimately found it more interesting than satisfying. Still, it's a good film if not a great one, and those who enjoy dark and challenging cinema should definitely check it out. 3 out of 4 stars.

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