We Are What We Are

It requires a strong constitution, but this grisly satire on social and psychological dysfunction is worth getting your teeth into, says Peter Bradshaw

The family that eats together stays together, they say, and first-time feature director Jorge Michel Grau has made a startling and macabre film on this theme about a family with an awful secret binding them together and tearing them apart: they are collectively addicted to the eating of human flesh. Like Giorgios Lanthimos's recent shocker Dogtooth, it is a grisly satire on family dysfunction and abuse, and on poverty, society and the law.

We Are What We Are has no tinge of the supernatural, and is not precisely a horror film like Let the Right One In, although I can see it getting an English-language remake called something like What We Are. Or maybe It Tastes Like Chicken. It is horrible because it proposes, subtly and incrementally, a plausible psychological explanation for what is happening, which the audience must retrospectively insert into the narrative: cannibalism is a symptom of the horror, not the cause. And on a more basic, non-metaphorical level, it suggests that in Mexico City, rife with official incompetence, hypocrisy and corruption, the ultimate taboo is broken much more frequently than anyone in authority is prepared to admit.

The father of the family is first seen staggering through a glitzy shopping mall in the city, convulsed with physical pain and existential agony, clutching his stomach. His horrible death leaves behind a widow and three fatherless children in their late teens: two boys and a girl. A police autopsy discloses something very strange in the deceased's stomach: a human finger, complete with painted fingernail. The pathologist shrugs: from the mean streets of this desperately poor and unhappy city, he is brought half-eaten bodies all the time; their condition is officially blamed on rats – the "two-legged kind" says the doctor grimly.

The dead man evidently had very particular tastes in meat-eating, a taste that he has enforced on his family: they can touch no other kind of food, and now they must find their supper without his help.

Their household is poor and ramshackle, but Grau shows something bizarre and fanatically ordered in its poverty. The place is packed with clocks and watches, ostensibly because the family owned a market stall selling and repairing them. But there is something sociopathic and obsessive-compulsive in the vast array of meaningless stuff, including empty boxes and dirty old rags that the mother cuts and works into strips. These are to be used in the sinister "rite" that the father had devised.

How are they to find fresh meat? The obvious answer is to go to the red light district and kidnap a prostitute, the only class of person lower than them on the food chain.

Alternatively, one of the sons realises he could go and pick up someone at a gay club, and Grau builds a bizarre coming-of-age dimension into his story: the son must grow up, become what he is and enter into his adult inheritance as breadwinner. At any rate, the mother is furious at the idea of picking a prostitute – because her late husband was addicted to them. Grau shows, chillingly, that she does not feel the smallest sympathy for the prostitutes, and in fact the sole attraction in attacking one is in thinking of this as a kind of revenge for what she considers they did to her husband and may yet do to her sons.

Here is the central ambiguity of Grau's movie. A horror film would be about a cannibal who eats prostitutes, and other easily available victims. The question of why he is a cannibal is irrelevant. He just is, the way Dracula is a vampire; he is what he is and now they are what they are. But the film also invites the audience to consider an alternative explanation: the father became a cannibal out of an extreme, psychopathic reaction to his prostitute-addiction: from disgust, from rage, from denial, from a twisted need for cleansing, he tried to make the evidence disappear by eating it; his family, convulsed with shame, became complicit in this horror, and they collectively created this bizarre ritual to explain things to themselves.

In his bestselling study of the Andes plane-crash survivors who stayed alive by eating corpses, Piers Paul Read found an occasion to meditate on the sacrament. Jorge Michel Grau hasn't done this, but he does show how violence and madness are the genesis of a ritual designed to create, not redemption exactly, but rather a Black Mass of effacement, one that locks the celebrant into a hell of guilt and fear. Yet the film's most extraordinary moment is a hauntingly beautiful song that is being sung on a subway train by a woman. She looks like a busker or a beggar, but announces that she sang for money on this train years ago to raise money for her son's college fees; he has now graduated and her song is a way of thanking everyone. Out of nowhere, Grau conjures an epiphany of goodness that somehow floats free from this murky stew of revulsion: a clever moment in an intestine-manglingly memorable film.

ambiguity : dwuznaczność

bind sth together : łączyć coś

bizarre : dziwaczny

breadwinner : żywiciel rodziny

busker : grajek uliczny

clutch : trzymać kurczowo

collectively : kolektywnie, grupowo

complicit : wspólnik

conjure : wyczarować

constitution : zdrowie, organizm

convulsed : w konwulsjach

disclose : odkrywać, ukazywać

effacement : zmazanie, wykreślenie

epiphany : objawienie

glitzy : przesadny; błyszczący, lśniący

grisly : makabryczny

hauntingly : natarczywie

incrementally : przyrostowo, stopniowo

intestine-manglingly : szarpiąc wnętrzności, przyprawiając o złe samopoczucie

late : zmarły

murky : mroczny

obsessive-compulsive : obsesyjno-kompulsywny

ostensibly : pozornie

pathologist : patolog

plausible : prawdopodobny

ramshackle : zrujnowany

redemption : odkupienie

revulsion : odraza

rife (with) : pełen, obfitujący (w)

rite : obrządek, rytuał

shrug : wzruszać ramionami

sinister : złowieszczy

stagger : zataczać się, iść chwiejnym krokiem

tear sth apart : rozdzielać coś

tinge : nuta, posmak

vast array : szeroka gama

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