by Tony Dayoub
Jorge Michel Grau's We Are What We Are (Somos lo que hay) is the most welcome surprise I encountered in this year's New York Film Festival. Appropriately enough I saw this horror film exactly a week ago the morning after it won the "Next Wave" Spotlight Competition at Austin's increasingly popular Fantastic Fest. With a film festival's focus on movies outside the mainstream, We Are What We Are is the least intimidating opportunity for first-time festival attendees to experience what it's like to go to one of these in the wonderful venues offered by the Lincoln Center.
The Mexican film centers on a family of ritualistic cannibals living hand-to-mouth on whatever prey their father can scavenge, usually a prostitute to the matriarch's chagrin. After his mysterious death, an internal power struggle ensues as the two brothers, Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro) and Julian (Alan Chávez), vie for the role of family leader with each other and their mother, Patricia (Carmen Beato). Sister Sabina (Paulina Gaitán) backs the more thoughtful Alfredo, despite some incestuous tension between her and the hotheaded Julian.
Much of the backstory explaining the rituals is left unsaid, but their is a twisted eroticism which hovers over the film, alluding to some kind of sexual component. This leaves a lot of room for speculation. Were the parents also brother and sister? Is Patricia's jealousy over her husband's penchant for prostitutes tied to an unseen sexual aspect of the ritual? Does Sabina choose to back Alfredo precisely because their is no sexual chemistry between them? Is Alfredo's decision to target gay men an admission of latent homosexuality?
The insular sexuality pervading We Are What We Are contributes to the film's elegiac tone, as if this family is a breed unto itself which can only turn to each other to procreate. Like in 2008's Let the Right One In, there is a deep sadness wafting through the film, an implication that these creatures are the last of their kind, a cuththroat order of primate facing extinction as modernity encroaches into their territory. Part of this danger is represented by the two corrupt cops who track them down, hoping to cash in on the weird circumstances behind what they now suspect are serial killings. But also symbolic of this family's "end of history" is the house full of ticking clocks (due to their late father's day job, clock repairman), a constant reminder to the viewer of an unspoken finality these primal beings face.
We Are What We Are's horrific and erotic elements make for a perfectly accessible film to those afraid of foreign language art films. In fact, though the film is in Spanish, it is not dialogue driven. None of this is to say the film is dumb or that I endorse it for this reason. Quite the contrary, We Are What We Are is a throwback to a type of horror movie seldom seen any longer, one in which the scares come through the suggestion of danger rather than graphic exposure to it.
We Are What We Are is playing at the 48th New York Film Festival at 9:45 p.m. tonight, at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023, and 11 p.m. Friday, October 8th, at the Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street (between Broadway and Amsterdam), upper level, New York, NY 10023. For more ticket information go online here, or call (212) 875-5050