We Are What We Are -- Film Review

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CANNES -- "We Are What We Are," the soberly told story of a family of hapless cannibals, falls into the category of quality horror that embraces titles like "Let the Right One In" and other modern genre-stretchers. Though less intriguing than the Swedish vampire tale, this Mexican film still has the chops to nibble a small piece out of the over-saturated vampire market. Toying with gruesome violence and sexual taboos, the film is an interesting fusion of horror and psychodrama, buoyed by a striking teen cast filled with brooding hunger.

This first feature, confidently directed by Jorge Michel Grau, is perhaps too dark and relentlessly humorless to find wide international audiences; another limiting factor is the difficulty of identifying with any of the characters, who are played expressively but still remain abstract and alien, distant from the viewer.

A man staggers down a city street and dies in front of a shopping mall. When the autopsy turns up a woman's manicured finger in his stomach, the coroner cynically comments to the police, "You'd be surprised how many people eat each other in this city." Food for thought, indeed.

The deceased, a poor wretch who lived in abject misery, leaves behind a widow and three children, slowly revealed to be a family of cannibals who live on human flesh. With their bread-winner gone, the wild-eyed mother and her handsome adolescent brood are in a quandary: where to find their next meal, which they must consume in an obscure ritual by candlelight, or die.

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Sabina (Paulina Gaitan of "Sin Nombre") decides that her older brother must become the family's new "leader," but Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro) is immature and insecure in the role his sister has chosen for him. He is challenged both by his violent brother Julian (Alan Chavez) and his half-crazed mother (Carmen Beato), the Ma Barker of the clan.

The mother, who seems to have more than a few screws loose, is fixated on "whores," who her late husband was apparently very fond of, and refuses to perform the ritual when Alfredo and Julian bring home a local streetwalker as their first catch. "We're monsters, Julian," she remarks in a lucid moment. Beato's unpredictable reactions add a few tiny touches of humor to the dark proceedings.

When out "hunting," the boys act with impunity, grabbing anyone they chance upon without fear they'll be stopped. Their only nemesis arrives in the form of two cops, neither bright nor honest, who chase after them without realizing what they're up against.

Like young lions out on their first hunts, the brothers are awkward at the game and some prey slips through their fingers. When street kids elude them, they turn to the sex trade for their prey. In desperation, Alfredo picks up a boy in a gay disco. Is Alfredo secretly gay? Or is he just using himself as bait to draw his pickup into a mortal trap? And is there something incestuous going on between Julian and Sabina? These and other questions add a spicy note but remain unsolved in Grau's arty script, and in the end seem immaterial.

Santiago Sanchez's velvety cinematography emphasizes the sordidness of the surroundings, where violence holds the family together.

Venue: Festival de Cannes -- Directors' Fortnight
Production companies: Centro de Capacitacion Cinematografica, Fondo para la Produccion Cinematografica de Calidad Mexico
Cast: Francisco Barreiro, Alan Chavez, Paulina Gaitan, Carmen Beato, Jorge Zarate, Esteban Soberanes
Director: Jorge Michel Grau
Screenwriter: Jorge Michel Grau
Producer: Nicolas Celis
Director of photography: Santiago Sanchez
Production designer: Alejandro Garcia
Music: Enrico Chapela
Editor: Rodrigo Rios
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 89 minutes
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