We Are What We Are (Somos Lo Que Hay)
When a middle-aged man collapses and dies in the street, his devastated, poverty-stricken family face some hard choices, not the least of which is how they’re going to put food on the table? The family are cannibals and even in Mexico City you can’t just nip to the supermarket and pick up a couple of pounds of human flesh and a pint of milk. Their father has always provided for them, roaming the streets, carefully selecting the victims to be butchered and consumed in the family’s bloody, ritualistic ceremonies. With him gone however, the responsibility to feed the family falls to weak-willed eldest son Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro) who must overcome his reluctance and assume the role of provider, holding the family together. But with his domineering mother and impulsive, hot-headed brother undermining his leadership and two lazy, corrupt cops on their trail how long can the family survive?
As much a social realist portrait of urban poverty in Mexico as it is a horror flick (think Ken Loach makes a cannibal movie), We Are What We Are (Somos Lo Que Hay) is a confident, assured debut by writer/director Jorge Michael Grau. From the first scene, an angry seam of social satire runs through the film: the dying, dishevelled father staggers through an upmarket shopping mall, futilely pawing at the display windows and moved on by snooty shopkeepers, before collapsing in a pool of his own bloody vomit, his body removed almost before it’s settled, cleaners mopping the floor where he fell, wiping up the blood, erasing any sign of his existence. This is a society where the poor don’t matter and where people are disposable, easily falling through the cracks. The police, when they get around to investigating the death of the father and his predilection for human meat, are inept. Lazy and corrupt, they’re interested not in justice but in what they can get out of the case (fame, fortune, etc…). The victims the family hunts are those lower down the food chain than themselves; prostitutes, homeless children. People who won’t be missed. All the characters exist in a moral vacuum; there is no higher authority, no constraints, no retribution. The film seems to be saying when society fails why not just eat people?
Unfolding at a sedate pace, We Are What We Are (Somos Lo Que Hay)
is more interested in character and the dynamics of its dysfunctional family than it is in gore and grindhouse thrills. Their predatory natures aside, the family are a fractured mess forced to deal with the raw pain of their grief and the void left by the father’s death as well as their own resentments and frustrations not to mention the pressing need to eat, to survive. Sure, they may be cannibals but the desperation of their situation is one born of poverty, of struggling to make ends meet.
Bitter and angry, the widowed mother is a hysterical, domineering presence, resentful of the feckless father’s failure to provide for them and his dalliances with prostitutes. While the youngest son Julian (Alan Chavez) is a reckless hot-head, prone to violence and nursing a less-than-healthy desire for his sister, his elder brother Alfredo (Barreiro) is sympathetic, intelligent, wracked by self-doubt. Only Sabina (Sin Nombre’s Paulina Gaitan), the daughter, seems equipped for survival. Quiet and purposeful, she’s the glue holding the family together, making decisions in lieu of their mother and pushing Alfredo into accepting his role as the new head of the household. Sympathetic and scary, Gaitan is excellent as Sabina using her intelligence and sexual power to dominate the family while assuming a position of weakness, almost of subservience.
Subtle and restrained, with much of the violence occurring off-screen and implied by the crunching of bones or the wet suck of a knife in flesh, We Are What We Are (Somos Lo Que Hay) trades in dread, Grau sustaining an escalating undercurrent of tension, his gritty camera implicating the viewer in the family’s lifestyle. They may be a bunch of murderous, incestuous, sexually deviant cannibals but by giving us no-one else to identify with Grau makes us root for them. It may not be to everyone’s taste but by refusing to explain or outright condemn the family’s habits We Are What We Are (Somos Lo Que Hay) is a film with more guts than is splashed across the screen.
Jorge Michael Grau
Francisco Barreiro, Alan Chavez, Paulina Gaitan, Carmen Beato