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'Cannibal's' Manuel Martin Cuenca on Exploring Evil and the Limits of Love (Q&A)

Manuel Martin Cuenca on set - H 2013
Manuel Martin Cuenca on set

The film, expected to be Spain's biggest this year, premieres Friday at the Toronto Film Festival.

Expected to be Spain's biggest film this year, Manuel Martin Cuenca's Cannibal world premieres Friday at the Toronto Film Festival as a special presentation. Backed by Spain's Mod Producciones -- producer of Alejando Amenabar's Agora and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Biutiful -- Cannibal is already generating buzz for awards season and upcoming festivals even though it doesn't yet have U.S. distribution. The Hollywood Reporter's Spain Bureau Chief Pamela Rolfe caught up with Martin Cuenca on the eve of his Toronto screening.

Even though this is a love story, it's not at all a common approach to redemption and forgiveness. How would you say the story is unique for speaking of these three elements?

The film starts from the framework of a thriller, but contains a moral dilemma. It's very much film noir. Beyond the events taking place, it is a reflection on life and love and the limits of love. It's a demon's journey into love that pushes it to question itself when previously there was no questioning.

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How did the story evolve? Did you always think in terms of cannibalism? Seems to be a tricky subject.

For us, it is purely a metaphor speaking in terms of evil, which is what it represents. Something infrequent in films. The overwhelming evil of a person embodied in the normalcy of everyday life, it's as if you were talking about a Nazi or a predator of another kind. We're discussing the taboo of a society, not the cannibalism per se--which is not so interesting. It's the presence of evil in our society.

Some may think the film suggests we should understand really bad guys. What do you think?

The film doesn't suggest that. The film tells of events. We're living an era of predatory capitalism, hitting people very hard, invading the society. These are facts that are there. I don't defend them. The events are there. I'm talking of a person who is evil incarnate. I could use an executive who doesn't think of the decisions he makes. I don't defend it. What I do is I highlight a presence in our society. Film noir always appears in troubled moments and Cannibal is a footprint of the times.

How did starting with a repellant figure--an-anti-hero--represent a crucial challenge in getting your audience to identify with the protagonist?

There's a kind of cinema that always looks for the audience to identify with the protagonist. I don't think that always has to be the case because I think there are characters you can never identify with. I'm looking for the audience to understand the events and think about how those characters relate to us, but not identification. It's not a mirror-image cinema. That's one kind of cinema. It's fine. But this isn't that kind of cinema.

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There's quite a bit of expectation heaped on this film. Do you think an edgy film like this can find a wider audience--particularly given such big production backing?

I think that each film has its audience and that not all of that audience is necessarily in one territory. There's a fragment of it in one part and another in a different part. But the sum of all the audiences makes the film a success. One doesn't really have any control over whether the film will reach its audiences. Obviously, I'm a filmmaker and I want it to find its audience.

How do you feel about Cameron Bailey's inclusion of Cannibal in his Mission List of 15 films at Toronto that can transform the way people see the world?

First off, it was a very pleasant surprise, obviously. There's been a lot of expectation for the film since the project stage and we realized that we were hitting on something that touched a nerve for the international industry. The fact that Cameron Bailey said that gives us hope that the film will travel and be in many festivals.

Why did you choose to set the film in Granada?

I'm from the south of Spain. I studied in Granada and I wanted to go back to my home to shoot. But I also wanted to find a city that was not well-known like Madrid or Barcelona that would show a different part of Spain that doesn't often make it into the movies.

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You return to the focus of killers with this film and showing them in a cool, detached--even beautiful--way. Why?

I feel like an artist and you fine-tune your style and this film is a bit more filtered. It's a style that you notice, but not too much. I'm on a journey to go to the essence of things, to the theatricality of  film in the best way. So that there is nothing that doesn't represent anything, as if it were a window to another, parallel world that allows us to think about our own lives.

It's a very hard role to pull off successfully and Antonio de la Torre is already being talked about it terms of a Goya. What did he bring to the role that makes it so powerful?

It's an extremely difficult role because how do you transmit that duality, on the one hand a human that commits evil acts with regret, very matter-of-factly, and on the other hand, he's a real person. He's not a psychopath. A psychopath couldn't do that journey to open and lower the armor and realize that others exist. That others have pain. That the others' soul exists. Antonio portrays this discovery with honesty and it's very powerful to watch. It's like a triple back flip. And only the actor can do it. The director can't do it. The writer can't do it. Only the actor. And he does it.