I know, I know – I thought exactly the same thing when I heard about the Cannes darling Somos lo que hay (We Are What We Are) – do we really need ANOTHER modern Mexican cannibal movie?
But bear with me.
See, this just isn’t just any ol’ Mexican cannibal movie. It’s also a GAY Mexican cannibal movie. And not just any ol’ gay Mexican cannibal movie – with its sly message of empowerment and celebration of self, this is pretty much the Mexico City Gay Pride float of gay Mexican cannibal movies.
Heck – even the title We Are What We Are sounds more like the next Lady Gaga made-to-order Pride anthem than the name of a horror movie.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Francisco Barriero is hungry
We Are What We Are tells the story of a Mexico City family whose father – in an opening scene that could have been lifted directly out of Dawn of the Dead – keels over in a mall after wheezing, dragging, and oozing himself amongst the casual shoppers. His body is removed and that’s that.
But not for his family, who lead a somewhat sheltered but not entirely backward existence in the projects. While their home may be ramshackle, the teenaged children are clean and well-dressed (they’re the human-flesh-eating answer to a Prada ad). The eldest, Alfredo (Francisco Barriero), is quiet and sensitive. The youngest, Julian (Alan Chavez), is a loose cannon with a short fuse who may or may not be involved in an incestuous relationship with sister Sabina (Paulina Gaitan). Mother Patricia (Carmen Beato) spends her time either locked in her room or screaming about the end of the world, which naturally establishes a calm and nurturing atmosphere for the kids.
All the while, hundreds and hundreds of ticking clocks (the family makes its money fixing clocks and watches) mark the passing of time from the crumbling walls.
Barriero, Gaitan, and Chavez mark the hours
The question that drives the narrative of We Are What We Are is, “How will these people survive now that their provider father is gone?” This would be challenging enough in any old family, but when you factor in that the father was the sole source of the family’s primary food – human meat – and that their feeding is tied to an elaborate and essential ritual, it gets even more complicated.
It’s recession drama for the flesh-eating set.
Now that papa is no longer going to be providing them with meat (having died of poisoning, as we learn from some bumbling but ambitious detectives who also find an oddly intact lady’s finger in his tummy), someone else in the family is going to have to step up. Mom’s a frazzled wreck, likely in part due to the fact that her husband had a thing for screwing and then eating streetwalkers, which she forbade from the family table. Nutrition matters!
Younger brother Julian doesn’t have the smarts or the savvy for the job, as made clear when he beats the tar out of a customer at their marketplace watch-repair stand (getting them booted from the market) and brutally abducts a prostitute for the pantry, which moms is of course not terribly happy about.
Gaitan is clean
Sister Sabina is actually the shrewdest of the bunch, managing to control pretty much everyone in the house without any of them realizing it. She’s a leader, but not a figurehead. That will have to fall to one of the fellas…
Which leaves Alfredo, the eldest, “sensitive” one. If you’ve been watching domestic dramas for more than a day or two, you might recognize that “sensitive” is often code for “gay homosexual” – and in this case it holds true. Later in the film – as the various family members act out in the wake of their patriarch’s death and an acute case of the munchies – we join Alfredo as he openly stalks a group of gay guys as they travel around the city. They’re fully aware that the cute, quiet guy in the neutral tones is following them, and when he trails them to a gay dance club he is told by the bouncer that they’ve kindly paid his cover for him.
Inside, one of the gay guys comes on to Alfredo, who freaks out and runs. But shortly after, he decides to embrace the moment and runs back in to steal a passionate kiss on the dancefloor.
Unfortunately, lust and appetite are closely tied together in a family that eats people to survive. And much as pops ate the hookers that turned him on, Alfredo’s desires are more complicated than a coming-of-age hookup can satisfy. So while it’s disturbing to see him bring the guy home for dinner, it shouldn’t be terribly surprising.
After an hour or so of quiet, staid melodrama (which is actually pretty boring in spots, so be patient), things suddenly get very complicated as cops, lecherous cab drivers, gruesome butchering rituals, and a gaggle of vengeful hookers descend on the steadily ticking home. It all culminates in a bloody ending that, while a little confusing, is actually quite satisfying if you pay close attention.
He Are What He Are
Through all the bloody goings-on, first-time feature writer/director Jorge Michel Grau keeps things moving with carefully-constructed shots, deliberate visual motifs (lots of closing doors) and a dry sense of humor (seriously dry – like a tumbleweed, you may miss it as it scratches by). Fans of Almodovar will likely notice some references (transvestite hookers FTW!), and anyone who caught last year’s utterly bizarre Greek film Dogtooth might find this to be a suitable bookend.
While I don’t know a thing about the filmmaker himself, he deserves some gay horror cred for deftly embedding a gay coming-of-age tale in this gory satire of contemporary poverty. It’s Alfredo’s struggle for self in the face of seemingly insurmountable (and stomach-turning) odds that hooked me and that will haunt me after.
RATING (OUT OF 5):
We Are What We Are is Unrated, and contains scenes of graphic dismemberment, ugly sex and more hookers than you can throw a corrupt cop at.