Off to the Curzon for exactly the kind of film I’d go and see at a Curzon: a Mexican film about poverty and cannibalism. We Are What We Are, or Somos lo que hay, is the directorial debut of Jorge Michel Grau, whose interest is not in the gory mechanics of ritualistically killing and eating people (although there is plenty of that), but in the desperation of a family living below the breadline, without a breadwinner, in a city – Mexico City – that has gone so far off the rails, its corrupt, parallel, dog-eat-dog social caste system not only turns a blind eye to cannibalism, but almost condones it as an organic form of “social cleansing.” If I’ve made it sound as fascinating, politically charged and unusual as, say, Peter Bradshaw did in the Guardian, or Paul Julian Smith in a lengthy lead review in Sight & Sound, or our own David Parkinson on the Radio Times website, I should add that it’s also one of the more depressing and unpleasant experiences I’ve had at the cinema this year.
Grau is obviously a filmmaker to watch, and his film is hard to ignore, but it’s also wilfully grim. A horror film? Yes, but that doesn’t cover it. A thriller? It’s certainly thrilling. A family drama? By definition, although it only really hints at what motivates the characters and what informs their borderline incestuous interrelationships, forcing us to accept that cannibalism is a fact of everyday life for them. It opens with the gut-wrenching death of the family’s patriarch, brilliantly staged in an upmarket shopping mall. Shades of George Romero here, and dispatched with the kind of black humour I’d been looking forward to. When two sleazy cops visit a seemingly insanitary morgue and take away the human finger, with painted fingernail, that was found in the dead man’s stomach, you could almost be watching a clever parody of a detective story, or something more horrific. We meet the bereaved family: a widow and three teenage kids, two boys and a girl, who have been scratching a living off a market stall selling and mending watches on borrowed time while Dad pissed the money up the wall on whores (their grotty home is full of sinisterly ticking clocks – a nice touch, but one that goes nowhere). Without Dad to bring home the bacon, as it were, the eldest son must reluctantly step up.
From here, it quickly spirals into something much darker, with the sons’ incompetent attempts to find human food in the dark recesses of Mexico City’s underbelly almost played for laughs, but you won’t be laughing for too long. The mother (Carmen Beato), a domineering harridan who draws the line at a bound and gagged prostitute being brought home for dinner (or for “the ritual”), is a nasty piece of work, whose moral rulebook seems, at best, misplaced, when you consider what they are about to receive. The eldest son, played with depth by Francisco Barreiro, seems to carry the family’s conscience, shaking with tears when, in a tender scene with his sister Sabina (Paulina Gaitan), he asks if this is what life is going to be like, post-Dad. Next thing you know, he’s stalking a gay club for meat, either driven to do so, or having had doubt placed in his heart, by the beautiful singing of a busker on the train, who hands out handwritten fortunes to her fellow passengers – his reads, “You are alive.” This might be the best scene in the film.
Unfortunately, all of this promise – not just for the writer-director Grau, but for the film itself – is subsumed by the often unbearably physical violence and evisceration. I knew I was going to see a cannibal film, but I foolishly allowed the 15 certificate to reassure me. It’s pretty gruesome stuff, and most of the bad stuff takes place at home, in a basement, occasionally behind plastic sheeting, but with what is not graphic visually made graphic in terms of sound effects. I know, I know, it’s about eating people, there was bound to be some eating people, but you will spend most of the film either unsettled by what might happen, or made ill by what is happening. Life, it seems to be saying, is cheap in Mexico City. This is a through-line worth pursuing, and why not through a horror genre? All I’m saying is, We Are What We Are – or, as the man in front of me at the box office brilliantly misnamed it, You Are What You Eat! – is a sometimes necessarily but occasionally unnecessarily uncomfortable watch.
I do tend to read a lot of reviews before I see a film at the cinema. (Clearly, less so if it’s an advance screening.) I went into this latest import – distributed by Artificial Eye and part-funded by the National Lottery and BBC4 – with heightened expectations that it didn’t quite live up to. I’m actually appreciating it more now, the next morning, than I did when trapped in the Curzon with it. Bear that in mind.