Cannibalism may be the nominal calling card of We Are What We Are, but ritualistic gruesomeness is merely a means for political commentary in Jorge Michel Grau’s auspicious debut. “My first intention was to make a film about familial disintegration,” says the writer/director. “It begins as an art-house drama, and then switches at the end to horror.” His assured allegorical tale of man-eat-man monstrousness focuses on a destitute Mexico City family who, after their patriarch’s death, strive to carry on their fanatical “rite” of abducting and consuming those even lower down the societal food chain.
Infusing grungy realism with macabre details, Grau’s waking-nightmare domestic drama is a study of self-interest run amok, and the larger breakdowns that follow in its wake. With the nastier bits of business kept largely off-screen, economic, religious, and household decay takes center stage. Citing as inspirations Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66, the canon of Michael Haneke, and Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day, with which his maiden feature shares an aesthetic and narrative patience and nuance, Grau asserts that, ghastly premise notwithstanding, “I didn’t necessarily want to make a genre film. I was much more interested in providing a mirror to talk about the social problems in Mexico right now.”
Born in Mexico City in 1973, Grau’s passion for cinema led him to the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica, the country’s national film school, where his cannibalistic saga came to life. Set in Grau’s childhood neighborhood, an impoverished urban locale of venal corruption and “moral narrowness” that the writer/director knows intimately, We Are What We Are charts not only its central tribe but also a pair of crooked cops whose desire to catch the deviants dining on local prostitutes is directly proportional to the financial and professional rewards such an achievement would reap. The message is clear: “There’s a sense of ‘To each his own,’ ” says Grau of Mexico City, “and that if something doesn’t happen to you”—or is in it for you—“you don’t get involved.” Such callousness is epitomized by a haunting sequence in which mother and son relocate a corpse from their car’s backseat to its trunk in the middle of a highway, to the complete indifference of passers-by.
In the film’s gloomy panorama, corrosive dysfunction abounds, from the psychosexual tensions within the clan—indecisive Alfredo is a closeted homosexual, sadistic Julian and domineering sister Sabina burn with suppressed incestuous longing, and Mom wrestles with twisted feelings about prostitution—to the family’s blind adherence to a ceremony whose mysterious historical roots are never revealed. All of these perverse dynamics are governed by the “big moral dogmas that rule everything” in Mexican society, Grau says. Rife with black humor and horror, We Are What We Are is not just an allegory of one town’s corruption, but also a portrait of endemic collapse to sink one’s teeth into.
‘We Are What We Are’ plays at Alice Tully Hall October 7 and Walter Reade Theater October 8