When a filmmaker is capable of exploring a series of frankly outlandish filmic, thematic and moral propositions with absolute conviction and sureness of touch, the results are usually memorable. Such is the case with Manuel Martin Cuenca’s Cannibal, a carefully crafted study of a psychopath that brings a whole new meaning to the phrase Eat, Pray, Love. Undermining right from the start the false expectations raised by its title, Cannibal is a essentially a beautifully composed character study, superbly played by Antonio de la Torre, which, like the best noir, is both chilling and moving. Art house sales are inevitable, but sharp marketing could just about see mainstream audiences eating out of Cannibal’s hand.
Carlos (the dependable de la Torre in a career-best performance) is a tailor, with a snobbish disdain for pret a porter, in Granada in southern Spain. Quietly spoken, fastidious and dapper, he’s basically a perfect gent, practically friendless apart from his seamstress Aurora (Alfonsa Rosso), who innocently wonders when he’s going to settle down with a good woman. The fact that the Catholic Carlos is restoring a valuable fabric for a local religious brotherhood suggests the esteem in which he is held by the conservative local community.
A beautifully judged opening scene, shot mostly from a wary distance, reveals both Carlos’s darker side and his methodology. Driving an off-road vehicle that might have been built for the purpose, he drives toward cars on isolated back roads, forcing them off the road and killing the occupants. He then takes the female occupant to his mountain cabin in the Sierra Nevada where he uses a range of knives to expertly butcher the carcass, packages the meat, and stores it in his freezer to later be consumed with a glass of red wine: rarely can shots of someone chewing meat have been so charged.
Carlos is a fascinating figure, and it is to the credit of both de la Torre and the script that the audience’s fascination in him never spills over into the sensational. Cuenca approaches his subject matter with just the same care as Carlos takes to his tailoring, so that anything that might threaten imperfection is rapidly excised.
But imperfection indeed threatens in the form of a blonde Romanian immigrant (Olimpia Melinte) who comes to live in the house opposite from Carlos’ and who Carlos observes from a distance as she undresses at her window. One night, following an argument over money, she runs to seeks shelter at Carlos’ house: An ellipsis suggests that she does not survive the visit, but Torre’s performance is subtle enough to suggest that he might be interested in her for more than simply culinary reasons.
Matters are complicated further for Carlos when the girl’s twin sister, Nina, also played by Melinte with dark hair, comes looking for her. The strange relationship that develops between these two outsiders is the focus from now on.
Cannibal pulses from first scene to last with a tension that’s likely to create a pin-drop atmosphere in theaters. But it is not the tension raised by the cheap question of how and when Carlos’s next victim will meet her end. The real focus is on the welter of conflicting emotions bubbling under the tailor’s always imperturbable surface, and it is to de la Torre’s great credit that from very early on the viewer is aware that there is another side to him, that at some level he is struggling to be normal. Indeed, de la Torre’s understated performance looks like a concerted attempt to undo Sir Anthony Hopkins‘ cliche-inspiring work in The Silence of the Lambs. Melinte is a fine foil, playing Nina as a young woman for whom vulnerability is a way of life, but who is vulnerable in ways that she is not aware of. It is her innocent desire to see the best in people that makes the relationship between the two so engrossing.
In other words, there is the very real possibility that Carlos kills and eats because he loves, and it is on this struggle between the two primordial instincts of loving and killing that the film’s true focus, and also its universality, lies. Very clever indeed, the audience is manipulated into troubled sympathy for the cannibal, and in arriving at this position the film is forcing viewers to renegotiate some pretty deeply ingrained assumptions. Audiences will emerge from Cannibal with their perspectives slightly rearranged, something which few films can claim to do.
Cuenca’ previous film, Half of Oscar, which now looks a little like a trial run for Cannibal, also dealt with a psychopathic killer operating in stunning landscapes. (Indeed, the surprising killer has become something of a staple in recent Spanish cinema.) Cannibal’s unfailingly beautiful aesthetics, at their most emphatic in the beautifully composed blue sky and snow landscapes of Carlos’ trips to his cabin, are likely to raise complaints. The only gore comes early on, as blood trickles from Carlos’s first victim with all the carefully photographed, glossy beauty of a TV ad for honey, and indeed what must be the messy, chaotic aspects of a cannibal’s life are carefully elided over. But neither is the film morally duplicitous in trying to conceal Carlos’s victims’ suffering: a later sequence has him patiently standing on the beach, waiting for a victim to die as she struggles in the sea.
In a story whose effects depend as much on what is unsaid as on what is said, Alberto de Toro’s superbly-judged editing is crucial, generating ellipsis after ellipsis without ever feeling forced. Pau Esteve Birba’s photography matches the film’s fastidious tone, whether capturing impressive mountain landscapes or intimate, fleeting facial gestures. Perhaps the only false note comes with the inclusion of a brief TV clip from the roster of another film from the same production house.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Production companies: La Loma Blanca PC, MOD Producciones, Libra Film, CTB Film Company LTD, Luminor
Cast: Antonio de la Torre, Olimpia Melinte, Alfonsa Rosso
Director: Manuel Martin Cuenca
Screenwriters: Cuenca, Alejandro Hernandez, based on a novel by Humberto Arenal
Producers: Fernando Bovaira, Simon de Santiago, Manuel Martin Cuenca, Alejandro Hernandez
Director of photography: Pau Esteve Birba
Production designer: Isabel Vinuales
Editor: Angel Hernandez Zoido
Sound: Salva Mayolas, Pelayo Gutierrez, Nacho Royo-Villanova
Sales: Film Factory Entertainment
No rating, 116 minutes