Thursday, 15 December 2011

We Are What We Are (2010)

They say Christmas is a time for families, so in the next few posts I will be looking at some recent horror films with particularly degenerate families, starting with this 2010 Mexican cannibal shocker from director Jorge Michel Grau (whom I understand is no relation to the director of the classic zombie flick The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, 1974).
Mexican cinema has come into its own in the last decade or so with films like Amores Perros (2000) that depict the brutal reality of life in modern Mexico City, a place where life is cheap and survival often calls for desperate measures. At first glance, We Are What We Are seems to follow in this school of ‘poverty cinema’ and it shares the same languid pace and formal asceticism as other celebrated Mexican offerings as Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), but as we get further into the film it becomes apparent that We Are What We Are is closer in theme to schlockers like Frightmare (1974) and Death Line (aka Raw Meat) (1974) in its use of the cannibalism motif to explore degenerate families.

Tony Williams in his book, Hearths of Darkness, wrote of the family as an instrument of repression, a way of turning out docile members of society willing to conform to social norms. We Are What We Are manages to explore this idea pretty neatly within its brief (80 mins) running time. We are firmly in Freudian territory here; what is described as the ‘Oedipal Trajectory’ forms the thesis of the film: the process by which male family members are socialised to take on patriarchal roles within the family, and by extension, wider society, thus ensuring the continuance of male power structures.

In We Are What We Are, when the father of a poor Mexican family dies unexpectedly, it falls to his sensitive son, Alfredo, as the eldest, to take on the role of patriarch. This family, however, survive by eating human meat and Alfredo seems ill-equipped temperamentally to take on the responsibility of hunting down victims.  While his mother, Patricia, sits in judgement waiting for Alfredo to prove his metal; his younger, more vicious brother, Julian eyes the father role for himself, while his sister Sabine manipulates them both behind-the-scenes like Lady MacBeth, finally goading them into action.
Logically in the film cannibalism as the family ‘ritual’ is presented as the social norm – not a deviation from the social norm: and although poverty may be a contributory factor, cannibalism is seen as a monstrous extension of patriarchal family values and a way of holding the family unit together in the face of social change. An image in Bunuel’s Los Olvidados comes to mind: in a nightmare, the child sees his mother coming towards him holding a dripping hunk of dead flesh. This image – with its evocation of the child’s fear of the mother – resonates throughout We Are What We Are.
In We Are What We Are the women in the family work towards perpetuating the patriarchal power structure. The Oedipal Trajectory, according to Freud, works by dissuading the male child from identifying with the mother through the fear of castration – both literal and symbolically through the denial of power within the family structure, a demotion, if you will, within the pecking order – so that the male child becomes like his father. The ‘successful’ completion of the trajectory results in the male child taking on the characteristics of heterosexual masculinity to become the virile, aggressive patriarch.  Unfortunately, Alfredo falls short somewhat, harbouring homosexual feelings and suffering ‘Oedipal guilt’ because he is unable to live up to his mother’s expectations. During one of his hunts he brings home a victim from a gay nightclub that he has ‘picked up’. We have seen him wrestling with his sexual desires and for a brief moment, think that he might liberate himself from the repression of his family life by breaking with 'social norms’, but his repression is too great for him to take that step.
Although the women in the film maintain their gender roles within the family structure– the men bring home the meat; the women prepare it – both mother and daughter act out their ‘power envy’ (or penis envy) in their treatment of Alfredo.  Although they devote their frustrated energies to the perpetuation of patriarchy within the family, they are excluded from the wider world of money, power and politics. Their resentment at this exclusion shows itself in their secret despising of Alfredo and his ‘privileged’ position within the family. Patricia forbids him to bring home a prostitute for them to eat because her husband enjoyed the privilege – as befits the patriarch - of consorting with prostitutes. Later, Patricia brings home a man for herself, on the pretext of providing a ‘meal’ for her family, whom she is then forced to kill. The film shows that in the patriarchal family ‘hate’ masquerades as ‘love’: the only priority, as Patricia points out, is that in time of crisis at least one family member survives, so that the ‘ritual’ can be preserved and continued. This plays itself out in the final scenes as the police close in on the cannibal house and a shoot-out ensues. As Patricia flees, leaving her children to their fate, the family finally implodes: Alfredo attacks Sabine and is shot by Julian, who is himself shot and killed by the police.
Interestingly, Grau posits the prostitutes – in their deviation from the social ‘norm’ – as another potentially positive alternative to the patriarchal family. This is of course another reason for Patricia’s antagonism towards them: they pose an ideological threat to ‘family values’.  Grau depicts them as a social collective, ‘a sisterhood’ with their own moral code (which is more honourable than Patricia’s). Similar to Tod Browning’s Freaks, the prostitutes hold the policy of ‘offend one and you offend them all’. As Patricia rests after fleeing the police shoot out, the whores converge on her, en-masse, and beat her to death.
Now with the cannibal family wiped out – and only Sabine left alive – is the ‘ritual’ over? I will not reveal the film’s conclusion but suffice it to say that in the patriarchal society of We Are What We Are indoctrination runs deep and old ways are hard to change.
We Are What We Are is pretty strong meat. It will provide you with food for thought on Christmas Day when, as head of the family, you prepare to carve the turkey.

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