Thursday, 2 December 2010

We Are What We Are - Dir. Jorge Michel Grau

‘We Are What We Are’ (Somos Lo Que Hay) has been acknowledged by many as the ‘first Mexican cannibal film,’ and whether or not this statement is true, ‘WAWWA’ isn’t by any means a typical cannibal film. If anything, this film is more like a socio-political examination of the current run-down Mexican slums, with the story of a family of cannibals lightly sprinkled on top to allow engagement of behalf of the audience. While the socio-political examination and subsequent criticism of Mexican society is executed well, the story itself falters and could have done with a stronger, more focused script.

Beginning with the death of the family’s patriarchal father (Humberto Yanez), who stumbles drudgingly through a modern shopping centre before collapsing in a dead heap in broad daylight. Instantly, director Jorge Michel Grau provides the audience with the issue of class divide in modern Mexico. As he lays on the concrete motionless, prospective middle-class shoppers casually avoid who they believe to be a dying or dead homeless man, before the cleaning crew of the shopping centre are called in to remove the body. The lack of respect, and humanity with which the public treats the dying father, alludes to the fact that Mexico is attempting to raise its public image both domestically, and internationally, and to do this, the lower classes must not be seen nor heard. The following scenes establish not only the family dynamic, but the sub-plot of the corruption in the Mexican police force. During the autopsy of the father, the pathologist reveals the family’s dark secret; that they are cannibals (through finding a whole finger in his stomach), while the Police, initially uninterested in case, and now believe that this could be their big break financially. “Break this case and we will meet the President.” The Police and authority throughout are portrayed as corrupt, lifeless soles that do their jobs for the acclaim, and celebratory status, rather than to curtail social dis-order in the Mexican slums. Crimes between the lower classes seem to be a free-for-all for justice, unless the social rewards are substantial enough to garner a response from the middle-class authoritarians. Essentially Grau provides the visual metaphor of the lower-classes ‘eating’ each other (through the representation of the family), and succeeding in doing a job that those who live beyond their means, do not wish to engage with. However when the classes collide, with the cities, the countries, reputation at stake, the authority must strike down with a powerful fist, to preserve a reputation suitable for wealthy locals and tourists alike.

Back in the family’s household, with the father presumed dead by their daughter Sabina (Paulina Gaitan), and with their mother becoming increasingly withdrawn (Carmen Beato), it is left to the older brother Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro) to take over the patriarchal role of the family, while also keeping his hot-headed, psychopathic younger brother Julian (Alan Chavez) in line. His first business as the new head of the house-hold is to find a suitable woman for the family’s cannibalistic rituals. Instead of concerning himself with the use of shock-tactics and horror clichés, Grau focuses more on the destruction of the nuclear family and how each member of the family becomes increasingly unstable as more and more responsibilities and lumped upon them. Alfredo fails to become a hunter like his father and feels effeminate; the mother becomes distraught and erratic as she attempts to overcome the news of her husband’s death, while Sabina, as the young, female of the family, rapidly descends inwards as she is forced almost instantly into the nature of adulthood.

The performances by all the members of the family, and the supporting cast of prostitutes and policemen, are somewhat disturbingly beautiful. In the slums of the city, they must day by day, year by year, drag themselves up and attempt to create a living in the world of the prostitutes or a meal on which to survive in the world of the family themselves. While the direction, and cinematography by Santiago Sanchez, creates this perfect divide which is simply roads away between the slum-dwelling lower-class, and the youthful, nightclub enjoying middle-class patrons. However, this film does harbour one large indiscriminate flaw which casts a dark shadow over the whole film in general; the lack of depth and development in the script. It deals suitably with relaying the corruption, and the class divide within developing Mexican cities, but when the script comes to the family itself, it fails to ignite any truly engaging aspect of the story. We know little of the family’s history, nor if it has any ambitions for future, aside from surviving. While certain characters could do with substantial improvements to their characterisations, such as probing the sub-plots involving Alfredo’s sexuality, and Julian’s uncontrollable teenage rage, or fundamentally providing any information beyond the very little we know about the ‘ritual’ being committed daily (?) by the family. ‘We Are What We Are’ is an adequate family-drama, with a hint of horror, and an underlying sub-plot of socio-political change within such a developing country. It may not be the best foreign film of the year, but one which certainly deserves a viewing.