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We Are What We Are (Somos Lo Que Hay)

September 6, 2011

You really do have to be careful what you read. The posters, the trailer, the advance word, and now the Blu-Ray box will tell you that We Are What We Are (Somos Lo Que Hay), the debut feature of writer-director Jorge Michel Grau, is a full on “cannibal gore-fest” (to quote just one crit). There are numerous stills being bandied about showing either aggressive or terrified people slapped liberally in blood, but in only one instance – and a very very brief one at that – has the claret been administered for the dreadful reason you might assume.

The film starts with a static camera at the top of a shopping mall’s escalator, in, we later discover, Mexico City. An old and clearly unwell man rides to the top of the staircase. He is distressed and extremely frightened. He falls to his knees, retches, and collapses, dead. Shifting to an overhead shot, janitors from the mall rush over and remove him, another sweeps in and cleans the mess up quickly. Moments later, a couple walk across the very spot where he expired, oblivious.

Across the sprawling city, in a more chaotic world entirely, the man’s wife and children await his return. When they realise he is the man they have heard about dying at the shopping centre, they are thrown not just into grief but a real, fierce terror. The man was the patriarch, but he was also their provider. The full import of this fact hits home as the man’s body is opened up in the morgue and a human finger is discovered in his stomach. The mortuary assistant is unimpressed, even amused. “More people eat other people in this city than we realise,” he comments. Normally it is blamed on the rats (“the two legged ones,” he scoffs).

For the family left behind, though, this is no laughing matter. Suddenly faced with a life-threatening crisis they must learn to act, and fast. Their compulsion is one of the strengths of the film for it indicates a massive unexplained world at play behind the set-up. There is a madness here, sure, a proper, seeping madness that has created around it, by necessity, an accepted mythos. The kids, the mother, must eat and follow ‘the ritual’, an unseen, briefly mentioned obsession. Behind their front door, in an apartment oddly stuffed with unexceptional relics and tat from previous encounters, the family circles around itself in a shared state of mutual OCD. They pile boxes high, they rip cloth and knot it for no rational purpose, but this thing, any mention of this “rite” drives them on.

In a shadowy, dark, meaningless world, their determination to fashion some purpose to their existence is hypnotic. The children, a sweaty trio of unspoken urges and bewildered torment, who cannot trust outsiders and can barely trust themselves, pass their new-found responsibility around like an unwanted ugly gift. They need to continue but no-one wishes to take over the mantle of leader. Eventually, the young girl, the forceful Sabina (Pauline Gaitan) convinces her bother Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro, in an extraordinary performance) to go out into the packed streets and subways and underpasses to find the ‘something’ (their term for food) that will help them survive.

Stepping out into the clamour of Mexico City begins the process that guides the story to its climax. On the metro, Alfredo watches people, seeing only their hanging arms, or hands or legs. He is frightened but inescapably driven. A woman starts to sing and at first it seems that she is a beggar, but she stops and explains that she used to sing to put her child through school, and now he has just graduated from University, and so this performance is to thank people. She puts a small piece of paper into everyone’s hands. Alfredo reads it, it says, “Estás Vivo”. You are alive. It is a moment of beauty (the song is exquisite, the intention sublime) bumping up against the gruesome and the macabre.

I would protest that We Are What We Are is not really a horror film at all, certainly not in any conventional sense. Admittedly it addresses some horrific subjects and it will draw people to it simply on the promise of such revelations, but in reality this is something else entirely. It reminded me of Benito Zambrano’s Solas, a very careful study on loneliness and alienation which begins, as here, in composed, dreamy, and unhurried arthouse style; we are more in thrall to mood and texture than anything else. There are also distinct nods toward Romero’s Martin and of course Let The Right One In, but it should be remembered that there are no supernatural elements here at all. The transgressions here are real and all the more frightening for that.

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