We Are What We Are

“Tupi or not Tupi”.

Brazil and Mexico had differing pre-, during, and post-colonial experiences, so drawing the above maxim from Oswald de Andrade’s Cannibal Manifesto and applying to Jorge Michel Grau’s disturbing cannibal drama may be misleading. But Grau must have been all too aware of de Andrade’s manifesto when he picked the title of his debut feature which never asks why people resort to cannibalism, but that they just “are”.

A middle-aged man, dressed in soiled clothes, with a month-old unshaven beard, zombie-walks into a posh shopping mall in what looks like Mexico City. He is holding his stomach in apparent pain and discomfort. He sees bikini-clad mannequins in a shop window and points at them, eyes bulging out in fear. What is the origin of this fright? The scantily-clad dummies or his own reflection? Shoved away by a shop assistant, he takes a few more steps before collapsing on the floor, bile already spewn from his mouth. He lies there motionless, until two cleaners take the body away, while a third washes the bile with a broom. The mall is again pristine for the shoppers.

This is the Father, who made a modest living fixing watches in a market stall. His family of 5 (mother, and three late-teenage children) live in the projects. Their domicile is devoid of personal touch, crammed full of boxes, knick-knacks, and dozens and dozens of clockes, whose constant ticking forms a rather effective soundtrack. Father had a weakness - he was addicted to prostitutes, something the mother seemed to be somewhat OK with it. The reason being, he still brought home food. Fixing watches may not be enough to supply with nutritious sustenance for the whole family, but there is an abundance of down-trodden groups in the city, who can serve as food: prostitutes, stray children, gays etc.

After the Father’s death, the family needs a new bread-winner and this jobs falls to the reluctant, still-in-the-closet Alfredo. Despite the Mother’s protests, Alfredo is forced to accept the position with the help of his dark-horse sister Sabina. Meanwhile, he needs to keep his fire-in-the-hole little brother Julian at bay.

The majority of the film is a slow, calculated build-up to a very brisk, dialogue-free finale, during which your heartbeat is likely to go over the roof. The police, who are not initially impressed by finding a human finger in the Father’s stomach during the autopsy, decide to show some interest in the hope that the case may lead to a promotion. Bringing the police procedure to the mix feels a little awkward and is the reason for the change of pace at the very end. One wishes it was another half-hour longer with more time dedicated to character development. Because, sadly, it is difficult to feel for any of these characters.

A sad trivia regarding the film: Alan Chavez, who plays Julian, died earlier this year in a police shoot-out, where the police thought he and his friends were the people they were after. There is an eerily similar scene in the film, where someone is accidentally shot by the police.

We Are What We Are is a very impressive debut and it is definitely worth a watch - horror somehow has always been reluctant to touch on cannibalism, so there aren’t many examples out there (unless there is a remake in sight titled What We Are).