NYFF 2010: “We Are What We Are” (“Somos Lo Que Hay”)

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“In the end, what we have is a well thought-out horror classic worthy to be in anyone’s prized collection.”

We Are What We Are (Somos Lo Que Hay)
Directed by Jorge Michel Grau

Ever so often the genre film gets a surge of dramatization, creating something very special and memorable for the moviegoer.  This year, vampire films met an unlikely friendship with Let Me In.  Science fiction battled intrinsic feelings of love, jealousy and betrayal in Never Let Me Go.  The cannibal genre, furthermore, saw the emotional plight of a family torn between their patriarchal responsibilities and ritualistic hunger with Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are.  By testing the boundaries of conventional horror filmmaking, Grau in return manifests a film that is as much horror as it is a drama with horrific facets.  Grau interweaves themes of righteousness, leadership and sexuality with tasteful amounts of gore.  We Are What We Are winds up catering to a wide audience by brilliantly capturing the raw torment of inner conflict in a visceral viewing experience.

We Are What We Are tells the story of a cannibalistic family forced to hunt for food after their father is found dead at a local mall. Pressured by his sister Sabrina (Paulina Gaitan) and clashing for head title against his wildcard brother Julian (Alan Chávez), the eldest son Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro) reluctantly takes on the responsibility to fend for food for their secretive ritual by hunting random prostitutes off the streets of a Mexican City ghetto. Condemned by his mother (Carmen Beato), Alfredo takes matters into his own hands by making decisions that challenge his well being and his family’s very existence.

The beauty in the film rests solely on Grau’s choice of straying away from the typical display of violence and blood found in the horror genre, though that gore is still occasionally on display. Sound and cinematography become the true scare factors. Cinematographer Santiago Sanchez brilliantly balances subtle peeks of color highlighting the liveliness of the Mexican urban landscape, with that of the dark gritty drones masking the sense of death lurking within the family’s house.  The eerie score, composed by Enrico Chapela, fluidly pushes the film into its bleak corners while building the suspense needed to keep the audience at the edge of their seats. Nuances of crunching bones and splatters compliment the visual gore, adding a new level of texture. Even the consistent ticking clock sounds (evident because the father’s occupation was that of a clock repairer) that linger in the background carry meaning, symbolizing the essence of time before the ritual’s commencement. Grau knows exactly where not to place the camera. Whether it’s right above a dismembered body as it is being hacked up, or on a screaming face as its person is being bitten alive, the director allows the audience to draw their own conclusions, therefore magnifying the violence foreseen on screen tenfold. The film’s pacing is like a match stricken on dry leaves – what first starts out as a small crackle, ends up an engulfment of chaos and shock. With each element of the film working together as puzzle pieces fitting into a bigger picture, the final product is surely something to marvel in awe at.  What could have been a cheap addition to the horror genre is instead a meticulously layered masterpiece that isn’t afraid to take risks and go beyond its scope.

Like any puzzle, however, there are those pieces that don’t fit quite right at first. The film is equipped with its foibles, although minute, they might pose some questions. Like any good film, leaving the audience with questions creates a very interactive approach to their experience. On the other hand, leaving core questions behind (in particular that of the ritual and of the family’s origins), might raise some eyebrows. Perhaps the film could have been longer, investing some time in its setup to clarify details, but it’s hardly a deal-breaker. In the end, what we have is a well thought-out horror classic worthy to be in anyone’s prized collection.

Christopher Clemente

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