We Are What We Are (Somos lo que hay)
Mexico (2010) Dir. Jorge Michel Grau
A man (Humberto Yáñez) stumbles along the street then suddenly dies leaving his wife Patricia (Carmen Beato) and three children sons Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro) and Julián (Alan Chávez) and daughter Sabina (Paulina Gaitán) to worry about how they are going to carry on without him, each having to step up to carry out the duties their father handled.
Meanwhile the police are alerted when the autopsy reveals that the man had a human female finger in his stomach. With certain rituals to be observed for the funeral, the family need to find a way to put food on the table – not a straightforward task when you are a family of cannibals.
The title of this slow burning but unflinchingly chilling tale of a flesh eating family in mourning may seem familiar due to the US remake that has just been released here in the UK (although the story appears to be vastly different).
Making his feature film directorial debut Jorge Michel Grau manages to handle the tricky subject of cannibalism without relying on constant shock visuals for the sake of it, allowing the story to build to a gruesome crescendo; yet he never oversteps any real boundaries, keeping the majority of the violence off screen adding to the overall effect of the true horror that awaits the unsuspecting victims.
It’s an odd situation from which to make a story about a close family unit, who adhere to strict conventions and rituals as enforced by the patriarch, teetering on the edge of uncertainty but this is what we are given. And it works, even if the main players aren’t exactly the most endearing of characters.
Sabina is the quiet and apparently the most subservient one of the family, at least at the beginning, while the two brothers seem to have their father’s authority ready to be handed down to them. Eldest son Alfredo is the more sensible of the two while youngest Julián is a constant ball of rage, forever lashing out at all and sundry. Refusing to be at the bottom of the totem Julián tries to assume leadership of the family but is quickly shot down by his siblings and their mother who has locked herself away in her room.
An unspoken ritual is brought up that requires “something to eat” (read: someone) for the next day so the boys are the designated hunters. Quite what the specific requirements are, if any, are also not mentioned but, in lieu of their father’s propensity for prostitutes (which angered Patricia when learning of his death) they hit the local street corner to find their first victim.
Unfortunately Julián’s temper causes a scene which comes back to haunt them later on. With Patricia’s understandable aversion to whore meat, Julián runs off to find a replacement the next day, following a young man Gustavo (Miguel Ángel Hoppe), to a gay club and later brings him home. Surely the rets of the family can’t be averse to homosexual flesh? Apparently they are but never mind because Patricia has brought a local cabbie home for dinner too.
The final act is where the violence is brought to the fore and quite gory it is too, depicted with an unbridled realism and nonchalant vigour. By keeping this aspect away from the audience for so long its arrival is doubly effective and rather unpleasant, avoiding such clichés as geysers of blood and flying entrails, replaced instead with sheer animalistic brutality.
Yet Grau somehow manages to create the illusion that the family aren’t doing this through any malicious intent but out of a sense of duty to their traditions and a bizarre sense of necessity when their dinner guests – or more accurately their dinner – starts to fight back. The police eventually arrive and the primary concern is self preservation which brings out a truly dangerous side to Julián which actually turns out to be surprisingly altruistic.
Due to the film’s brief 82 minute run time there is little explanation or exposition given to help us understand how and why the family are what they are (sorry!) although maybe we wouldn’t want to know. As the title suggests are we supposed to analyse this unusual behaviour or simply allow them to be since it is unlikely they will change?
As mentioned earlier, bloodthirsty killers they maybe but to them their acts of violence are necessary in their struggle for survival. It may not be normal to us but it is to them. The question Grau puts to us is how much tolerance and leeway can we allow them since their tendencies are not conducive to those regular in modern society?
It’s fair to say the cast do a good job in their in the least making their characters easy to define but the problem is the ability to read them on an emotional level. Empathy is never a concern and quite honestly their behaviour doesn’t engender it in anyway. Patricia is scary in her reactions since she flies off the handle without a reason we can see, a credit to Carmen Beato’s unnerving performance.
Of the young male leads they are both rather expressionless but Alan Chávez brings a burning intensity to his essaying of the firebrand Julián. Paulina Gaitán delivers the most understated performance culminating with a wonderfully ambiguous final shot.
An interesting take on the family unit drama, We Are What We Are has a tacit social dilemma running beneath the horrifying premise that might be tad to subtle for some viewers while providing temporary food for thought for others. The brisk running time is not wasted, delivering a taut and quietly unnerving shocker that could have benefited by exploring its characters a little deeper but conversely may have lost some of its bite in the process. Worth a look for a short, sharp shock.